a vivid painting of a goat in the desert
"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, 1854

On S.F. streets, it’s too easy to cast out human ‘scapegoats’

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Acharei Mot

Leviticus 16:1-18:30


Passover has only recently passed, but in this week’s Torah portion, we encounter a central purification rite performed on Yom Kippur by the High Priest in the Temple. The detailed descriptions of the sacrifice are hard to understand. I always want to ask a trained anthropologist: What on earth does all of this mean? Yet this year, one layer of meaning is suddenly clear.

Aaron, cleansed and vested in beautiful ritual clothing, is commanded to take two goats for a sin offering, and to place lots on the two goats — one designated for God and one for Azazel. The one marked “for God” is offered as a ritual of purification from sin — for himself, for his household and for the entire people of Israel, and the altar is ritually cleansed of impurity and consecrated. Aaron then lays his hands on the head of the goat marked for Azazel and confesses the sins of all of the Israelites. The goat is then sent off to the wilderness, symbolically carrying with it all the transgressions of the Israelite community.

This year I can visualize the scapegoat being cast out by the community, because I have seen the process play out on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

In early April, I had the painful privilege of spending the day at Glide, a remarkable church, community service center and social justice powerhouse in the middle of the Tenderloin, together with a group of 18 rabbis. The rabbis are part of a program called “Becoming Rod’fei Tsedek (Pursuers of Justice)” that seeks to immerse us in the core social justice issues of our day from a Jewish perspective. On that day we were led by Rabbi Michael Lezak, who serves on the staff of Glide’s Social Justice Center.

Michael was clear from the moment we arrived that our task for the day was to put our professional personas, distractions and defenses aside, and open our hearts to the abject poverty of the people that Glide serves. After grounding ourselves in Torah study, we were sent outside to explore the neighborhood, each of us alone, without the ordinary armor of bags, briefcases and cell phones. Our assignment was to see everything there was to see: a neighborhood filled with people lying on sidewalks surrounded by their few possessions, people shooting up drugs in broad daylight to feed a desperate need, people relieving themselves on the street. I have been to the developing world, and this was third-world poverty, in the shadow of a glittering tech hub — a stone’s throw from the San Francisco Hilton, Microsoft, Salesforce and other tech giants.

The high priests of San Francisco — the tech giants in their fine clothing, with very high salaries and extremely costly homes — and the society that venerates them have cast out the people served by Glide. The clients are not sent far away into a distant wilderness. They are here among us, for those who are willing to see. Anyone who views the scene with an open heart must be overcome by the utter tragedy of so many lives broken by poverty, addiction, lack of health care and educational opportunity, in the center of the glittering beauty of San Francisco. But it is painful to witness, and so many people walk by, pretending that these scapegoats are in a faraway wilderness where they need not concern us.

We are members of the society that has collectively created these human scapegoats. We collectively have tried to wash our hands of these people, trying to imagine that we are in no way implicated by their fate. But as long as we persist in looking away, we are performing the inverse of the original “scapegoat” ritual. We cannot be morally pure as long as we tolerate this travesty in our own streets.

What are we to do? We may feel hopeless in the face of the enormity of the problems. But if you want to resist the sin of doing nothing, do two things: First, next time you walk in the city, open your eyes and your heart to the suffering people you see. And second, call Glide and arrange a tour or better yet, a volunteer opportunity.

Only in this way can we begin to atone for our collective transgression.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as the coordinator of Jewish Community Engagement at Faith in Action Bay Area. She can be reached at rebamy@eilberg.com.