In the accounting of the Yom Kippur service in Vayikra (16), we are told that Aharon Hakohen must take two goats and stand them in front of the entrance of the “tent of meeting” (the Mishkan). Lots are to be placed upon the goats, where one will be designated for God and the other for “Azazel”. The goat for God will act as a sin offering, whereas the goat for “Azazel” is to be taken out into the wilderness and to be thrown to its death. This process is to be an atonement for the nation of Israel.
When explaining this peculiar service, Rashi provides a simple explanation that Azazel is to be understood as nothing more than a hard, tough mountain (as the word Az suggests). The Ramban (Nachmanides) brings both the explanation of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, however attempts to provide more depth to the subject. Bereishis Rabbah (65: 10) is the first point of reference the Ramban uses to elucidate this practice. On the verse “the goat will bear upon itself all the iniquities” (which is discussing the goat for Azazel) the Midrash tells us that “the goat” is referring to Esav and “the iniquities” are referring to Yaakov. The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (46) explains that due to the previous observation of the Midrash Rabbah, one must understand that the goat for Azazel is to be given as a “bribe” to Samael (the angel of Esav) in order that he should not nullify the offering for God! The lot for God is to be a sacrificial offering whereas the lot for Azazel is no more than the goat with all of the sins of the nation of Israel upon it. The Ramban continues to quote the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer which includes a lengthy monologue of Samael before God, advocating the praises of the sin free nation of Israel, rather than acting as their heavenly prosecutor.
What is perhaps most perplexing about the explanation of this event is that it seems as if it is an almost idolatrous ritual on a day which is assumed by many to be the Holiest day of the year (as well as a practice which is supposed to be cleansing us from our sins and not increasing them). This point is not missed by the Ramban, for he subsequently mentions that the Torah prohibits any form of subservience and worship of any celestial being apart from God. However, over here God is commanding the nation of Israel to send the goat to the ministering angel of destruction and desolation and it is not the nation of Israel who, out of their own volition, is worshipping a celestial being. The Ramban tells us that this angel (Samael) has dominion over the “stars of the sword, bloodshed, war, dispute, wounds, injury, divisiveness and desolation”. We are also told that Samael is the angel over the planet Mars, the nation of Edom (descendants of Esav) and the male and female goat. Additionally, Samael has under his influence demonic forces called mazikim (which are referred to in scripture as [male] goats). Since the angel has power and influence over these negative forces, the nation of Israel is commanded to appease it with the giving of the goat. However, the intention of the verse is not to suggest that the nation of Israel is giving an offering to Azazel (Samael), but rather they are merely performing the will of God who has commanded them to appease Samael in this manner.
An analogy is given by the Ramban, where a banquet is made for a master who commands those who made the banquet to give a small present to his servant. In no way would one assume that the banquet was made for the servant, rather all is made in honor of the master and the master, not wanting his servants to speak badly of his ways, gives a small portion to his servant. Similarly, both goats are a “gift” for God, and it is God who gives a small portion to his servant, Samael. This is the approach of the Ramban on the goat for Azazel.
Despite the attempted reconciliation of the externally peculiar practice which bears striking resemblance to idolatrous worship (even according to the Ramban) and is only differentiated by intention alone (that the nation of Israel is performing God’s will and not an “offering” to Azazel), several questions remain. Why on a day such as Yom Kippur are we commanded to perform a practice which has such a close resemblance to idolatry? Is the relationship between the atonement of the sins of Israel and the sending of this goat to Azazel one which can only be understood in the mystical vein of the Ramban or is there perhaps an alternative more rational explanation?
An answer to the latter question is provided by the Rambam (Maimonides) in his work “The guide for the perplexed”. The function of the “scapegoat” (appropriately named) is presented as follows:
“The goat [of the Day of Atonement] that was sent [into the wilderness] (Lev. xvi. 20, seq.) served as an atonement for all serious transgressions more than any other sin-offering of the congregation. As it thus seemed to carry off all sins, it was not accepted as an ordinary sacrifice to be slaughtered, burnt, or even brought near the Sanctuary; it was removed as far as possible, and sent forth into a waste, uncultivated, uninhabited land.”
One immediately notices the symbolic interpretation of the Rambam, in contrast with the Ramban. Since the goat was seen to carry off the sins, it was sent as far away as possible. Regarding the question of how the sending of the goat atones for the sins, the Rambam continues:
“There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress men with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent; as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”
The differences between these two approaches are striking, but perhaps not unexpected, for they are both attempting to forward their legacy of Jewish thought, namely the mystical/ kabbalistic approach and the rationalist approach. Whereas one advocates an interpretation which implies an interaction with the celestial or spiritual spheres, the other interprets it as a mechanism suited for the development of the human psyche. Whether one interprets this commandment as a bribe for the Angel of destruction or as a symbolic distancing from sin really depends upon which stream of Jewish thought one subscribes to. It seems as though there is and should be room for everyone.
 Vayikra 16: 23
 Esav is compared to a goat (Bereishis 27: 11)
 Section 3, Chapter 66
 Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp182.htm