Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Crown Heights is dark and bustling with motzei Shabbos/erev Yom Kippur activity. I am sitting in the back seat of a Chevy Astro. In the front seat is Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn and my friend Benyumin. On the floor between us are four cages containing 21 live chickens. We are headed for Greenwich Village.

I have done many crazy things in my lifetime, things that I am amazed actually happened when I look back at them. I beat some natives of Naples, Italy in their own card game on the island of Capri using hand gestures to comunicate. I ate some traiftastic ant eggs I found under a rock once. I nearly burned down a chuch by spilling a large amount of lit incence on the carpet. A priest almost died after I accidentally gave him bleach instead of water to drink. I have had many strange experiences, but none of them have been as meaningful as this one was. The concept itself sounds crazy. On the day be for Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, you traditionally buy a live chicken and say a prayer while you swing it over your head (most Jews don't do it this way anymore). Basically the chicken becomes your proxy and dies instead of you. It is your replacement and through its death you are somehow allowed to live on. I know, I know it sounds like another religion we've all heard of, but bear with me. The proceeds from the chicken sale go to charity and the chickens themselves are given to poor families. Nothing goes to waste and, in fact, a great number of people are helped. Is it helpful, relevant or worth doing from the atonement perspective though? Furthermore, since most people perform Kaporos with money, why the heck should you do it with an actual chicken!

I was suspicious the first time I heard about it. Why is this relevant to my atonement? It sounded like something that happened on a desert island or in a hut in South America, not a tradition of the Isrealite people! My curiosity, as always, got the better of me and I agreed to try it, and to help the Chabad rabbi bring the chickens to other student. That is how I ended up in a van with 21 squalking, defacating, vomiting atonements. After parking illegally, violating several people's leases by bringing livestock into buildings and dodging pecks we were back in Crown Heights to have the chickens shechted (slaughtered in a kosher way) and to do our own kaporos.

I picked my chichen and took him over to a bench so we could have a chat. Morty (that's what I named him) was rather unhappy to be doing this, but I explained that he was doing a very good thing and that it was quite an honor. I launched into a whole diatribe about how animals used to leap to be used as sacrifices at the Bais Hamigdash but I don't think Morty was interested. So I thanked him from the bottom of my heart and started the prayer. It really was meaningful for me. This fiesty, annoyed, uncooperative chicken was just like me. Neither of us were always so pleased to be doing what we needed to be doing, but in the end I wake up early to say Shema before shkia and he met with a shochets knife. He died so that a poor family could eat and so that I could learn a lesson about who I was and what I was meant to be doing. Morty made me promise to live up to my responsibility. It was like the end of Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hank's character says to Ryan "...earn...this." It was an incredibly powerful experience and I am so glad I did it. I really feel the responsibility, and the chicken crap is still on my shoes.
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