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Parshat Acharei Mot – A Timely Man

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

A Timely Man


An individual is designated to assume custody of the sent goat and lead it to its final destination in the wilderness. This individual is referred to by the text simply as an ish iti, a “designated man” (literally “a timely man”).

So significant is the role of the “designated man” in the process of communal atonement that a series of way stations are set up along his route into the wilderness. At each station, the ish iti is offered the option of breaking his Yom Kippur fast, that he may retain the strength necessary to successfully complete his mission (the Talmud, however, testifies that no ish iti ever actually ate on Yom Kippur).

According to biblical law, any Israelite can serve as the ish iti; the High Priests, however, eventually mandate that only Kohanim assume this role.


Given the pivotal function performed by the ish iti in the attainment of communal atonement, the Torah’s silence concerning the requisite qualifications for his role is bewildering.

Shouldn’t the individual who completes the central Yom Kippur ritual of the se’ir hamishtaleiach be required to be righteous, holy, ritually observant? Why aren’t these, or for that matter, any real requirements spelled out? Why is the Torah satisfied simply with the designation ish iti?

Furthermore, exactly what does the term ish iti signify? What innovative criteria is the Torah establishing through the reference to “a designated man”? Wouldn’t any individual chosen for this task, by definition, automatically be considered “designated”?


The approaches of the rabbis to the title ish iti range from the mystical to the utilitarian. Almost all who comment, however, base their suggestions on the literal interpretation of the words ish iti, “a timely man.”

One source in the Talmud, for example, views the designation as situationally – rather than personally – descriptive. The term ish iti conveys that the critical role of the “designated man” must be fulfilled at all times; even on Shabbat and even if the task calls for the overriding of specific Shabbat laws.

Choosing an entirely different path, the Chizkuni offers a startling mystical interpretation. Invariably, this scholar says, the individual designated to accompany the sent goat to its final destination does not survive the following year. The Torah, therefore, mandates that an ish iti be deliberately chosen – an individual whose time to die has arrived. In this way, only someone who is already destined to perish during the coming year will be appointed to this doomed role. The Kohanim were able to determine such a candidate, continues the Chizkuni, through their facility in the process of astrological divination.

The Chizkuni’s approach, however, is deeply troubling on two counts: both because of the arbitrariness of the ish iti’s fate and because of the reliance of the Kohanim upon divination, an art that is clearly prohibited by the Torah.

Interestingly, while the Chizkuni claims Midrashic foundation for his disquieting suggestion, later scholars are unable to locate any Midrashic source.

Those commentaries, such as the Rashbam, who generally view the text through the lens of pshat, maintain a straightforward, utilitarian approach to the term ish iti. The only prerequisites for this role, they claim, are knowledge of wilderness pathways and a consequent preparedness to depart for Azazel at a moment’s notice. In the eyes of these pashtanim, the designated man, unlike the Kohen, is neither a role model for nor a representative of the people before God. He is simply a facilitator.

Once the ceremonial requirements of the sent goat ritual have been completed by the Kohen, all that remains is to get the job done as expeditiously as possible. Someone must ensure that the sent goat reaches its final destination without delay. The only essential criterion for this role, the role of “designated man,” is that the candidate be the best man for the job.

Yet another Talmudic source, quoted in Rashi, sees an additional requirement embedded in the term ish iti. To be a “timely man” one must be muchan l’kach miyom etmol, “prepared for the task from the previous day.”

This source, at face value, strengthens the utilitarian position of the pashtanim. Pre-appointment is apparently necessary to ensure that the “designated man” will be ready to respond to the call of duty at a moment’s notice.

The requirement of “readiness” on the part of the ish iti, however, can be achieved even without pre-appointment. Why does the Talmud specifically insist that the “designated man” be prepared for his mission “from the previous day”?

A tantalizing possibility emerges if we consider the Talmudic mandate muchan l’kach miyom etmol in broader terms. Perhaps the rabbis are defining a singular character trait in the selection of the ish iti, a personal quality which they believe to be of inestimable value for any individual traveling along the path towards true tshuva.

Consider, for a moment… How different would our lives be if we were truly muchan l’kach miyom etmol, if somehow we could train ourselves to perceive the seeds of the future, each day, in our actions and in the world around us? What would have truly changed had we been prepared yesterday for today? What will change now if we are prepared today for tomorrow?

The rabbis, as always, said it well: “Who is truly wise? He who sees that which is a-borning.”

We can now begin to understand the single prerequisite that the rabbis mandate for the man who brings the Yom Kippur process of communal atonement to its conclusion. He must be, literally and figuratively, muchan l’kach miyom etmol.

Each Yom Kippur, after all, we inevitably confront our “regrets.”

If only I had been more aware… If only I could have known where my words or my actions would lead… I would certainly have spoken more carefully… I would certainly have acted differently… if only I had known…

Essential to the process of tshuva, then, is increased awareness of the ultimate impact of our deeds. If we can somehow perceive the potential future results of our words or actions, we will be more able to carefully calibrate our current reactions and interactions, sparing ourselves and those around us untold measures of pain.

To sensitize the nation towards this task of self-awareness, the Torah mandates only one symbolic requirement for the ish iti. The individual who completes the communal process of atonement on the holiest day of the year must simply be muchan l’kach miyom etmol, prepared for the task from the previous day.

Points to Ponder

My father, of blessed memory, passed away a short time before Rosh Hashana 5758. That year, I sorrowfully prepared my High Holiday sermons armed with a new understanding of the grieving process. Although I had certainly counseled many mourners before, only through my own loss did I truly begin to comprehend man’s journey through the “valley of the shadow of death.”

I spoke that Yom Kippur, before the Yizkor prayer (the memorial prayer) of the ish iti and of his requirement to be muchan l’kach miyom etmol.

By way of illustration, I cited the connection drawn by Rav Soloveitchik between the dual experiences of mourning and tshuva. Noting the similarity between the laws of shiva (the seven-day mourning period mandated by Jewish law) and the laws of Yom Kippur, the Rav arrives at a dramatic conclusion: mourning, in Jewish law, is largely an act of tshuva.

Man is always a latecomer as far as the formation of value judgments is concerned. His axiology [value system] or appreciation of persons, things and events is always a product of hindsight. In retrospection man discovers the precise value of something which, or somebody who was, but is no longer with us.… While the somebody was near, while I could communicate with the somebody, I was unaware of him.… He comes into existence and turns into somebody important and precious at the very moment he departs from me and is lost in the mist of remoteness. Only after he has gone do I begin to ask: Who was he? What did he mean to me?

With the Rav’s observations as backdrop, I continued to speak in personal terms of my own tshuva process and of the lessons we can all learn from the “designated man”:

If only I had recognized what I had when I had it… If only I could have predicted the deep pain and emptiness I now feel with my father gone… I would never have taken his presence for granted while he was with me…

If only we could all be, like the ish iti, muchan l’kach miyom etmol, truly prepared for life experiences – cognizant of what would be and how we would feel today – yesterday.