Two years ago in shul, after parading around the shul with the Four Kinds (sometimes called the Four Species), Hillel turned to me and said, "This has got to be the weirdest thing Jews do. Imagine being a stranger walking by and seeing THIS!" Yes, I agreed, it's a pretty strange looking ritual. If you don't know what it's all about, you'd think "Those Jews are NUTS!" Well, we are. But that's not the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing is kaparos. <lj-cut>
My day started by waking at 5 (thanks <lj user="sethcohen">. Well, okay, I rolled out of bed at 5, but got right back in and got out at 5:30. I drove in the pitch black morning to Baltimore to pick up <lj user="beaniekins"> and we went to a back parking lot filled with Jews and chickens. Chickens? Yes, chickens. Okay, so now you're dying to know what I'm talking about (if you don't already), so I'll tell you, because I don't want any of my readers dying on MY account.
Every year, immediately before Yom Kippur, the ritual of Kaparos is observed (by Orthodox Jews, anyway....other movements vary).
Kaparos is a ritual in which you symbolically transfer your sins to a chicken (poor sucker) and while you're saying a special prayer, you wave (GENTLY) the chicken over your head three times. The chicken is then slaughtered and given to the poor. As the Artscroll Machzor says, the ritual is designed to imbue Jews with the feeling that their very lives are at stake as Yom Kippur draws near, and that they must repent and seek atonement. the slaughter of the chicken symbolizes the concept that a sinner deserves to give up his soul for not having used it according to Hashem's will (but the chicken very noblely gives its own life in exchange for our own). The fact that the chicken is given to the needy fulfills a very important aspect of repentance: charity. Atonement for one's sins must contain three elements: teshuva (repentance), tzedekah (charity) and tefila (prayer). This mitzvah embodies all three. The ritual can also be performed with money, which is later donated to charity.
When I first heard about the ritual, I figured no one actually uses live chickens anymore. I mean, how could they? It seems so antiquated, so primal, so, well...so disgusting and downright crazy! And we Jews are a sensible people, are we not? Well, apparently we are not. Because live chickens it is! I couldn't quite bring myself to go last year, so I used money. Using money is a perfectly acceptable way to perform Kaparos, but (apparently), the ideal is to use a chicken. Still, I was horrified. No matter how much Bea tried to mollify me and assure me that no harm is done to the chicken, I just couldn't imagine it. But, curiosity got the best of me, and I agreed to go with her this year, <i>provided that I wasn't going to be forced to partake</i>. I wanted to ensure that I could make up my mind <i>after</i> I'd seen what exactly was going to happen.
So, at 5:45, I embarked on my journey to Pikesville to swing some chickens. I must pause to point out that although we say we're swinging chickens over our heads, that's really not happening that way. It's not like we grab the poor thing by the feet and swing away like a lasso, and we're not whirling it, and we're not trying to throw it or anything. The chicken is grasped gently from beneath its wings and gently waved in a circular motion over your head. Cruelty to animals is strictly prohibited in Judaism. If we were to harm the bird in anyway or allow it to injure itself, it wouldn't be kosher. So please understand that this wasn't meant to cause pain to the chicken.
On my drive to Pikesville, I tried to keep an open mind and really consider what the ritual meant to me. Do I really believe that the chicken takes on my sins? I don't know. I honestly wish that I could say yes to that. Do I believe the chicken is doing a mitzvah for me? In a way, yes, but I still feel bad about sending a chicken to its demise. Frankly, throughout the ritual, I tried not to think about the fact that the very chicken before me was going to die. Truth is, chickens die every day. I eat them. Shouldn't I have to face what I'm doing? That aside, a mitzvah isn't done because we like or dislike it, though hopefully we find some joy in every mitzvah. Rather, a mitzvah is done because it is according to Hashem's will. We are meant to find the strength to perform even the most unpleasant of mitzvot.
If I chose not to do this mitzvah because I'm not completely sure the chicken really takes on my sins and gives up its life for me, I'd have to re-think every mitzvah I do on the same basis. I learned to do mitzvahs first and then find the beauty in them. If I always waited for the beauty, I'd still be eating bacon.
When we arrived, there were dozens of people, and I could hear a quiet, but constant clucking of chickens. I didn't hear any screeching. I didn't hear any squawking, really. And the chickens weren't flapping to get away. They weren't struggling. They were surprisingly docile, though I do understand that chickens are pretty stupid, so maybe they just thought they were out for a good time. A very nice man assisted Bea and I with the ritual so that we wouldn't have to touch the chickens (I'm not that far gone yet). After Bea had finished, I reached for her Machzor, knowing there was no going back. But I was ready to do it. The man asked if I'd like to hold my own chicken and I accidentally blurted, "Oh please, NO!" I'm pretty sure I had a terrified expression on my face. I think I'd have cried if I'd had to hold the chicken. But 5 minutes later, I was done.
I'm not sure what I got out of it, but I'm pleased to have tried it. I'm pleased that I was willing to have a new experience. Will I go back next year? Probably, but no promises. The truth is, I think it was important to be faced with a very real example of the frailty and absolute value of a life. Even if it was the chicken's life. It could have been mine. Yes, I was responsible for that chicken dying. But I'm also responsible for chickens dying every time I buy one from the butcher, but we shield ourselves from that reality and try not to think about it. I know that the chicken did a mitzvah, and I know that someone needy will benefit from my willingness to try something new today.
On my way home, I called Seth and said, "that is decidedly the most bizarre mitzvah Jews do." I expected him to make a smart-alek remark, but he said, "well, you're going to go through with it, aren't you?" I was somehow surprised that was his reaction. I thought he had a revulsion for the ritual, but he seemed proud of me for trying it (I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong). I know that most of my readership now thinks I'm completely off my rocker. And I know that most of my readership already thought that. I wouldn't be surprised if this post upsets some people and offends others. It should. You shouldn't look at this ritual and think "wow that's really neat!"... you should think of the ritual and really comprehend the concept of teshuva, of life, and living life to the best of your potential.
I know that I didn't live up to my potential in the last year. I know that I could have performed more mitzvot, and transgressed fewer mitzvot. I am growing closer to my potential every day. I have my good days and my bad, but more and more, I'm spending time focusing on how I can improve my relationship with Hashem and my relationships with other people. I pray every day for the betterment of the world. I pray every day for Moshiach. I pray every day to be a better wife, a better friend, a better employee and a better person. I pray that tomorrow is better than today, and the day after tomorrow better still.
In the end, I think I'm moving in the right direction. Even if I <i>am</i> nuts for swinging a chicken over my head.