During Labor Day I was thinking a lot about the idea of labor and what it means to work. I kept coming back to the fact that we’re in this preparatory period, the month of Elul, leading to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it’s so much work! This time is all about teshuvah, meaning “to return,” to God, ourselves, each other, the kind of life we want to live. It’s intense.
Before I learned about the month of Elul and about the wind up to the High Holidays that includes time for reflection, accounting of the soul (cheshbon hanefesh), offering and asking for forgiveness, evaluating our missteps and recalibrating our aim, I was always struck by how insane it is to show up to synagogue (for many the only time during the whole year) and try to cram all of this soul searching and prayer and thoughts about life and death into a few hours, communally. Most of us read from a book that often doesn’t speak our language and doesn’t feel relevant. The whole process used to feel lacking. I wanted to believe. I wanted to feel something. And, I never did.
For the past few years, I’ve made it my work to mine my tradition for meaning. A few years ago I read everything I could find about preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, traditional and not, and the practice of kapparot kept popping up. If, like me, you have never heard of it, I’ll explain: the day before Yom Kippur people used to (and apparently lots of people still do in Israel and even in certain areas of Brooklyn) take a live chicken, swing it around their head, and offer it to God in exchange for their own lives, sort of a sacrificial atonement, another kind of scapegoat. After this, the chicken is slaughtered and given to a poor family for their pre-fast Yom Kippur meal.
After reading about this, I started doing some research because I was horrified by my own visions of screeching chickens, blood, and feathers. I knew this wasn’t a practice I would ever do, and I veer towards metaphor when it comes to sacrifices, in general. In my search for more information, I heard a great story. I can’t find a source anywhere, so I’ll just write it as I remember it:
A young student also wants to learn more about kapparot. He goes to the chief Rabbi and asks to watch him perform the ritual, because although he’s heard of it, he’s never seen it done before. “I’m so honored that you want to see me practice this mitzvah,” says the Rabbi, “but to tell you the truth, my practice of kapparot is not that exciting. You should really go see the innkeeper do it.”
The student goes to the innkeeper’s house the day before Yom Kippur and finds the innkeeper sitting in a chair in front of his fireplace. On the table in front of him are two tattered notebooks, each labeled “book of repentance.” The innkeeper opens the first book. He reads it carefully out loud, and begins to weep. The book is filled with mistakes and misdeeds that he committed in the past year. After he finishes reading from the now tear-soaked pages, he swings the book around his head and tosses it into the fire.
He takes a deep breath and picks up the second notebook. The ritual repeats, with him weeping and reading. This time, he reads an even longer list. And this time, he’s reading all of the mistakes and misdeeds hat God had committed in the past year. After reading this list out loud, he continues to cry, and he swings the notebook around his head and throws it into the fire.
Pretty good, minus the chickens, right? I got excited about this story, because this is personal. I love that the Rabbi in the story recognized and shared with his student the power of personal prayer, individual spiritual practice, and truly heartfelt work. It’s a nice reminder that there’s no “right” way to return, to repent, to practice.
Also, this story speaks directly to the fact that we’re not alone in this hard work of returning and repenting. In a poem that I reread all the time (Gods Change, Prayers are Here to Stay), Yehudah Amichai writes that “even solitary prayer takes two,” and it makes sense to me that personal atonement is only part of the whole of teshuvah.
Maybe returning to ourselves isn’t quite complete without acknowledging our own disappointments and sadness about the world, in God, about things that were not even our responsibility. When we fully feel that broken-heartedness, let ourself inhabit that place of disappointment and sorrow, voice it, swing it above our head, and then let it go, something opens up.
If we can recognize that all of this pain is not ours to hold alone, we figure out that we’re in a partnership within ourselves, with other people, and with God. This knowing that we’re working together to realign and find our place in the world alongside everyone else who’s doing the same thing can be a comfort. The ritual of kapparot is bizarre and interesting, and the innkeeper’s method is a sweet reminder that we can do it our own ways, too. This year, on the day before Yom Kippur, I’m going to sit quietly and reflect on the past year. I’m going to write my own lists, and maybe weep, and then I’m going to swing them above my head, and then let them go. I don’t have a fireplace, so my version will probably include the recycle bin, which feels like a good teshuvah.