The different approaches to understanding the ritual of the sending of a goat to Azazel reflect fundamentally diverging world outlooks. Mystics, like Ramban, identify Azazel as a demonic being which needs to be appeased before the Day of Atonement so as not harm Israel when they are being judged. Rationalists, uncomfortable with the notion that such supernatural powers exist or that a sacrifice might be offered to them, look for alternative explanations. Thus, Rambam attempts to view the action as being part of the regular sacrificial service of the day, which only for technical reasons occurs at a distance from the Mikdash.
Others view the rite more symbolically. Rashbam, looking to the leper's purification for inspiration, views it as a sending away of impurities, and Ralbag explains that this enables the nation to start afresh with a clean slate. Abarbanel looks more comprehensively at the ritual as a whole, seeing in the entire lottery a representation of the people's choice to turn to God or away from Him.
Offering to a Demonic Being
The goat is sent as an offering to a supernatural power named Azazel. This approach subdivides regarding both the purpose of the offering and whether Azazel really exists:
Bribery or Punishment of an Actual Satanic Power
The goat is sent either as a bribe to the Satan so that he will not hinder Israel from performing the Day of Atonement purification rite, or as a punishment to the demonic power of Azael for continuously instigating sin in the world.1
- The angel Azael – Bereshit Rabbati and Yalkut Shimoni suggest that the name is a variation of Azael, one of the fallen angels (mentioned already in Enoch), who had relations with humans and incited man to sin by encouraging licentiousness.4
- Demon ruling over the wilderness – Ramban, in contrast, thinks Azazel refers to a demonic power who ruled over the wilderness and other desolate places. He relates him to the "שעירים" mentioned in Vayikra 17:7 to which the nation used to sacrifice.5
- Satan – Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer views the name Azazel as merely an alias of Satan or Samael.
Concession to Erroneous Human Fears of an Imagined Force
The goat is sent as a gift to Azazel, despite the fact that such a being neither exists nor has any power. The ceremony is intended merely to calm the nation who erroneously believed that this demonic creature would contaminate the Mikdash, and thereby sabotage the purification accomplished through the rituals of the Day of Atonement.
Extra-Sanctuarial Sacrifice to Hashem
The Azazel goat is a full-fledged sin offering sacrificed to Hashem. Its unique meeting of its fate outside of the Mikdash is merely for technical reasons.
- For the masses whose abode is outside – R. Saadia maintains that each of the two goats in the ceremony provides sacrificial atonement for a different group of people. The first goat atones for the sins of the priests,26 and is thus sacrificed in their abode of the Mikdash, while the second goat atones for the nation as a whole and is thus sacrificed outside of the sanctuary where the nation resides.27
- Too contaminated – Rambam and Seforno, in contrast, suggest that this sin offering which is laden with all of the sins of the entire nation is simply too contaminated to be brought into the purity of the Mikdash.28 Due to its great impurity it is sacrificed as far away as possible.29
Symbolic Act of Purification
The sending away of the goat is meant either to signify that the nation is being given a clean slate or to symbolize the fate of the sinner and thereby motivate the nation to repent:
Scapegoat or Proxy
The sending off of the sin-laden goat represents the cleansing of the impurity or sins of the nation, and it enables the people to feel that they have been given a fresh start rather than remaining mired in sin.
- Goats – Rashbam asserts that the word is related to עזים. The animal is sent to the grazing land of goats, the wilderness. He suggests that the "ל" at the end of the word is superfluous and points to other words which similarly end with an extra letter after the main root.37
- Hard land – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor maintains that the word is comprised of two roots, "עַז" and "אֵל", both meaning hard or strong.38 He suggests that the term is parallel to "אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה" and "מדבר", the harsh, barren place to which the goat is sent.
- Destruction – According to Shadal, the word was originally used to refer to some demonic being ("אֵל עַז" - a fierce god) but was later borrowed by monotheists to refer to any great evil or destruction. R. D"Z Hoffmann similarly suggests that "עֲזָאזֵל" refers to a place of destruction, but posits that the word עזל means to distance and thus the noun refers to a distant place of desolation and loss.39
- Killed – According to most of these commentators the goat is killed.41 R"Y Bekhor Shor emphasizes that the sin-laden goat takes the place of the sinning nation, and is thus killed in their stead.42 He maintains that the word "הַמְשַׁלֵּחַ" of verse 26 comes from the word שלח or sword and refers to an executioner.43
- Alive – Rashbam maintains that the goat is sent while still alive into the wilderness.44 Like the live bird in the purification ritual of the מצורע, the Azazel goat is sent away and not killed.45
- Purification of the מצורע – Rashbam points to the similarities between this rite of purification and that of the leper described in Vayikra 14. In both cases, two animals are brought, one of which is killed while the other is sent away alive.
- Sale of Yosef – Jubilees49 connects this ritual to the story of the sale of Yosef. In both stories there is a כתונת, a dipping in blood, abundant usage of the verb שלח, and a שעיר עזים. Moreover, in both cases the animal functions as a scapegoat, taking the blame for another's sins.50
The lottery of the goats and their diverging fates represent the nation's choice to stand either with Hashem or against Him, and thus to remain on their land or be exiled.