Blog - Torah Insights

Mystery of the Lottery

FC.jpgMystery of the Lottery

One of the central parts of the service of the high priest on Yom Kippur was the service of drawing lots. As explained in this week’s parsha, the high priest was commanded to draw lots between two goats. He would take two pieces of wood, on one was written “to G-d” and on the other was written “to Azazel”, (to the wilderness). He would place one of the lots on each goat. The lottery would determine which goat would be an offering to G-d in the temple, and which goat would be sent off to the wilderness.[1]

What is the lesson and meaning of the lottery between the two goats?

A central principle of Judaism is that the human being is gifted with the incredible gift and responsibility of free choice. The human being has the ability to make the correct moral choice. He has the complete freedom to overcome any internal or external temptation or pressure and choose the right path.

The principle of free choice is the basis of all of Torah, because what would be the purpose of G-d commanding us if we didn’t have the freedom to control our own actions? In addition, recognition of the gift of free choice is a prerequisite to repentance and returning to G-d. One can only resolve to return to the right path and to reconnect to his truest self, if he believes that he has the ability to do so.

On the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day dedicated to correcting the mistakes and omissions of the past year and returning to G-d, the ceremony of the two goats served to remind the people that the choice was in their own hand. They alone could determine whether they wished to, like the goat offered to G-d, move closer to the temple and to holiness, or would they choose to embrace the path of the goat sent to the dessert, a path which leads to a morally and spiritually desolate desert.

But why all the drama and suspense of the lottery?

If the point of the service was to express free choice then why didn’t the high priest make the choice himself and decide where each animal would go? Why the need for the lottery?

Chassidic philosophy explains that free choice is multi layered; its deepest aspects are expressed specifically through the metaphor of the lottery.

A lottery is used when a decision is not based on logical criteria. When a teacher raffles off a gift, he or she decided not to award the gift based on logical criteria. Instead the teacher is delegating the decision to something other than reason; in this case, the decision is relegated to chance.

When we make a logical choice between two options, we are, in a sense, compelled to make that choice. When making a choice because we understand or feel that one choice is preferred, then, in a sense, we are compelled to make that decision because of the logical or emotional superiority of the preferred option. This type of choice, determined by our rationale or emotions, is the type of choice we exercise all year. We choose the right path because our mind or heart directs us and compels us to do so. 

On Yom Kippur, however, we experience a deeper dimension of choice. The Yom Kippur lottery symbolized that our decision to return to the path that leads to our inner temple is motivated not merely by logic and rational. It is not based, solely, on the appreciation of the goodness inherent in choosing to connect to G-d. On Yom Kippur the deepest part of our essence, our soul, emerges. The choice to return and reconnect to G-d is not defined by, nor limited to, emotion or logic. It is an expression of the Jew’s core identity. The soul chooses G-d because of its inherent bond with G-d.    

For much of the year our relationship with G-d is likened to a couple who seek a mutually beneficial relationship. They choose to remain together because of a logical calculation, because of the fulfillment and happiness they each derive from the relationship. On Yom Kippur, however, our bond with G-d transcends the logical calculation. On Yom Kippur we are like the couple who are committed to each other, not because of mutual benefit, but rather because of the deep commitment to each other.

The lots drawn by the high priest on Yom Kippur remind us that, just as the lottery is not defined by logic, so too our relationship with G-d is unconditional. On Yom Kippur we sense our soul; the part of G-d that is within us and yearns to reconnect with its Father in Heaven.[2]



 [1]As the Torah (Leviticus 16:5-10) describes: “And from the community of the children of Israel, he shall take two he goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering… And he shall take the two he goats, and place them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot "For the Lord," and the other lot, "For Azazel." And Aaron shall bring the he goat upon which the lot, "For the Lord," came up, and designate it as a sin offering. And the he goat upon which the lot "For Azazel" came up, shall be placed while still alive, before the Lord, to [initiate] atonement upon it, and to send it away to Azazel, into the desert.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Mammar Al Kein, Purim 5713.

Treasured Words

2000px-Treasure_chest.svg.pngTreasured Words

Often, people like to characterize events or experiences as either positive or negative. Our brain prefers the ease and simplicity of clear distinctions. Life, however, is more complicated than that. Often, the positive and negative overlap in surprising ways; often, the greater potential for risk holds the greater potential for profit. The more potent the experience the more likely it can be either deeply traumatizing or profoundly enriching.

An interesting illustration of this principle is the Tzara'at, the mysterious discoloration, which would appear, in biblical times, on the Jewish home in the land of Israel. As the Torah describes in this week’s portion:

And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of Tzara'at upon a house in the land of your possession.[1]

The Torah then proceeds to elaborate on the details of the discoloring and how, in some cases, it was necessary to remove the discolored stones (and, in some cases, the entire home would have to be destroyed).

Rashi, the classic biblical commentator, offers opposing explanations as to the purpose of Tzara'at. Rashi[2] explains that Tzara'at would appear as a punishment for “Lashon Hara” for evil speech. Yet he also offers another interpretation: 

because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, and through the lesion, he (the Israelite) will demolish the house and find them.

What are we to make of theses opposing explanations? Is the Tzarrat an indication of negativity, a sign of impurity which must be removed, or is it a sign which appears in order for the Jew to take possession of the treasure behind the wall? Rashi teaches us that the positive and negative explanations are both true simultaneously. The same force which the pagans used for impurity, when used correctly could, in fact, be a great treasure.

Indeed, the Amori was the name of the nation that hid the treasures in the walls. The word Amori comes from the word Amor, which means to speak. The Torah is alerting us to the power of the word. Few things can be as destructive or as constructive as the spoken word. 

The Tzara'at was designed in order to lead us to a treasure. Indeed, the Jewish home must be free of the impurity of destructive speech. The stones that captured the energy of pagan speech must be removed. Yet removing the negativity is always just a first step, never the ultimate goal. The Torah teaches us that the power of speech must be used to build, to comfort, to empower. Words have a way of reaching deep within ourselves, releasing the inner treasures of our soul, and allowing us to understand, empathize and connect to the people around us.[3]



[1] 14:34.

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 14:4.

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Metzora vol. 32. 




In Judaism, every number carries a specific energy and meaning. This week’s parsha, “Shmini” which means “eight” (the eighth day, following the seven days of the inauguration of the temple), is a chance to think about the spiritual symbolism of the number seven and the number eight. 

The number seven appears throughout the Torah quite often: seven days of creation, the seventh day being the day of rest, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishrei, the month of the festivals, and the seven years in the cycle of the sabbatical year. The kabbalists[1] explain that the number seven represents nature and the Divine force that creates nature. The natural world, which was created through the seven Divine emotional attributes, was created in seven days, the number seven, therefore, represents all that which is natural.

The number eight, however, is above nature. It is the power of holiness that is greater than natural order. When we encounter the number eight in the Torah, the Torah is alerting us that the topic we are discussing is one which transcends the natural expectation. 

When the Jewish people completed the construction of the Mishkan, the temple they built in the desert, upon fulfillment of G-d’s commandment “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst”[2], there was a seven day inauguration celebration. During each of the seven days the temple was erected and offerings were offered. Yet, throughout the seven days of inauguration there was no sign of the Divine presence. This is because it is beyond the natural ability of a human being to draw down a Divine revelation into this world of spiritual concealment.

Only on the eighth day, with the number eight representing the infinity of G-d which transcends the natural order, did the Divine presence reveal itself in the temple. As the Torah describes:

And it was on the eighth day… and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.... And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.[3] 

The number eight seems to contain two conflicting elements. On the one hand the number eight is in a class of its own, not included in the cycle of nature. Yet on the other hand, the number eight is a direct continuation of the number seven. This, seeming paradox, explain the mystics, captures the mystery of the number eight. While the supernatural Divine energy cannot be drawn down by the human being and can only be gifted to us by G-d Himself, G-d chooses to reveal the energy of the number eight only after people invest themselves in achieving the number seven. Thus, only after the people celebrated the seven days of inauguration, representing the culmination of human achievement, did G-d reveal the eighth dimension - that which transcends nature and could be expressed by the will of G-d alone. 

In our life we are sometimes called upon to accomplish feats that we may think are beyond our natural capacity, whether in our personal life, our professional life, in our role as spouse, child, parent, friend or community member. The goal may seem elusive, far beyond anything we can imagine ourselves accomplishing. We are sometimes called upon to perform what is no less than a miracle: to bring spirituality, inspiration, goodness and kindness to a spiritually desolate environment. We tell ourselves that we don’t possess the ability to create transformation. We tell ourselves that only a miracle can help. We tell ourselves that the job is not for us.  

The answer to our despondency lies within the number eight.

For indeed, to break free of natural limitation is beyond our ability, for the infinity of the number eight is gifted from above. Yet, eight follows seven. When we do all that is in our capacity, when we commit to the full “seven days of inauguration”, then we are assured that on “the eighth day”, G-d will bless our efforts with his infinite ability.[4] 


[1] Kli Yakar beginning of Parshas Shmini. 

[2] Exodus 25:8. 

[3] Leviticus 9:1-24

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekuteu Sichos Shmini vol. 3.

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.