Yom Kippur & Sukkot Musings
I lost my chicken the day before Yom Kippur. You may be wondering why that is a problem. But you see, this was not an ordinary chicken. On Erev (the day preceding) Yom Kippur we observe the custom of kaporot, by waving a chicken over our heads to atone for our sins (the connection between a helpless chicken and sins is another discussion). Yes, I am sorry to admit that I do have my share of sins. So off I went in search of my chicken in S. Monica.
What am I doing in S. Monica? I flew there Saturday night from New York to lead a Yom Kippur service – a fascinating experience of its own.
My dear friend Peter, with whom I collaborate for the Yom Kippur service, has a chicken waiting for me. He calls me on my cell at the Radisson Huntley Hotel on 2nd Street in Monica. He is waiting in a SUV filled with chicken stench. “You better get down here immediately, or else…” I hurry down. Off we go with cackling chickens in the back, some already used by Peter’s family. One chicken is particularly loud. “That must be your chicken acting up,” I tell Peter.
We finally reach the slaughterhouse, and go back to retrieve my chicken, and… off the chicken runs, clearly aware of its impending fate. I never saw a chicken run so fast; my sins must have frightened him to death.
Finally we corner that naughty lil’ rascal. I have this allergic resistance to touching this chicken. I finally grab him under the wings, walk over to the door of the slaughterhouse, and am surprised to hear the sound within. Mexican music is blaring out the door. First I thought that we must have mistakenly come to a Latino disco. But as I peek in the door, the smell and scene of the makeshift chicken factory are unmistakably Erev Yom Kippur’dik.
And so, I did kaporos to the tune of La Bamba… Yes, it was quite a scene.
This is how my Erev Yom Kippur unfolded on a cool morning on the West Coast.
You may ask what is the metaphor and lesson in all of this? And what is this thing with a chicken anyway? Why does an innocent chicken have to die for our sins?
Honestly, I am not quite sure. Perhaps it is just to teach us a humble lesson. Instead of escaping on Yom Kippur into meditating on lofty concepts, the chicken forces you out of your head and into reality. Yes, this is not just some academic exercise; it is about life and death. It is about holding in your hands a chicken throbbing with life and knowing that your actions will affect the destiny of this creature.
In my case, this particular year, I needed to pursue this white rooster, no small feat, and look into its blinking eyes and acknowledge that I have some things to account for, which this chicken will not allow me to forget.
If you know me you are probably aware that I don’t relate to the word “sin.” The guilt thing just never got to me. What is a sin after all? The word in Hebrew for ‘sin’ is ‘aveirah,’ which means dislocate (“ha’avarah m’reshus l’reshus”, movement from on entity to another). A sin is mode of behavior or an action that dislocates us from our essence.
Yom Kippur is a day when each of us has the unique opportunity to return to our true being. To reconnect even after we have wandered off. To reintegrate who you really are and your preoccupations.
As I have written in many previous articles, Yom Kippur is the birth of hope. On this day Moses returns after 80 arduous days of prayer, beseeching G-d to forgive the people for their iniquities.
After the ‘three weeks of affliction’ and the ‘seven of consolation,’ we finally conclude the ‘two weeks of return.’ After destruction and loss, we finally receive the new revelation on Yom Kippur and are ready to begin celebrating on Sukkot (see previous article titled The Three Weeks of Pain, Seven of Comfort and Three of Return).
There is no greater celebration than the ones that comes from returning and reconnecting to your essence.
170 days have passed since we were freed from our limitations on Passover. 50 days of spiritual refinement between Passover and Shavuot, when we are ready to receive our mandate and mission. 40 more days Moses receiving the Torah at Sinai. But then the fall of the Golden Calf. Another 40 days when Moses begs G-d for forgiveness. Yet another 40 days, that finally conclude with Yom Kippur, with Moses descending with the Second Tablets.
Now, exactly six (lunar) months later, we are ready to celebrate Sukkot. True joy is only possible after having endured and undergone the experiences of great light, deep darkness, and then the greatest light of all that is generated by the deepest darkness.
Now we are ready to celebrate Simchat Torah.
And here I am in plastic LA chasing after a chicken in preparation for the holiest day of the year. It doesn’t get more hilarious, and at the same time serious in a strange way.
I was not surprised to discover that this Yom Kippur was one of the most memorable in my life. The prayers came alive as we applied them to our daily lives. We experienced a true combination of history draped in real life. The holiest day of the year, thousands of years of prayers, beginning with Moses at Sinai, all integrated with our struggles today created a most powerful experience. Traveling the journey of Yom Kippur’s five step prayer service, climbing the ladder from prayer to prayer, through the five levels of the soul, nefesh, ruach, neshomo, chaya, yechida (the five levels of life: functional, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, the essence), was exhilarating and transforming.
Indeed, Yom Kippur is a day that allows you to leave behind for 26 hours a world of monotony and often pain into a purer world of spirit. A world that is driven not by pettiness and competition, with all the distractions and tiresome efforts of trying to make ourselves feel important. A world where you are just there and feel you belong unconditionally, with no airs and pretenses.
If you let yourself go – and that chicken in S. Monica sure loosened me up – Yom Kippur becomes the most powerful cleanser.
And that is the greatest cause of celebration – the song and dance of Sukkot, when we celebrate the awe of Yom Kippur.
So, if you find my chicken somewhere on the boulevard, please smile and give me a call.
Whoever said that Yom Kippur can’t be fun.
As I write these words, tragic news arrives from Israel. More lives have been torn from us and shattered our hope that the New Year would be a painless one. I feel strange (guilty?) to be sending you this humorous experience. But then again, perhaps my humor isn’t that good and after all, I don’t have any time to write another piece.
Above all, we must use this opportunity to extend our strongest condolences to the families that have now been devastated. “Ad mosai?!” “Viffel iz a shiur?!” – “how much more can we take” – is our cry to G-d.
Of all things, is this the way we are asked to enter the joyous holiday of Sukkot?!
Yet, we still are told to celebrate. And celebrate we will – not out of oblivious denial to the losses around us, but because every tragedy makes us ever more resolute to forge ahead, empowers us with ever more strength and faith to embrace our true calling.
As one Holocaust survivor once said: If anything, the great tragedy taught us that we cannot rely on man only on G-d. And that is the greatest cause for celebration. Every loss of life causes us to appreciate and celebrate with ever more intensity the gift of life and its purpose.
May we once and for all have a year of true peace, with no more death and pain, a year of joy in which we see in a most revealed manner how “the guardian of Israel does not sleep and slumber.”
And may we humans do our utmost to ensure that we protect our freedom and the gifts that G-d has given us. May we not be stupid and foolish in the defense of all that we cherish.