When I was a boy, my zayde used to come to the house on the day before Yom Kippur. He would take some coins and tie them into a handkerchief. He'd take out the prayer book, and would instruct us carefully on the ritual to come, for if we were truly to be forgiven for our sins, and if we were to be inscribed and sealed the following day for a good year in the Book of Life, we would have to shlug kapores in just the right way. Waving the handkerchief with its coins over our heads, we chanted rhythmically, "Zeh chalifosi, zeh t'murosi, zeh kaporosi; zeh hatarn'gol yelech l'misoh, va'ani elech l'chaim tovim arukim v'shalom.--This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement; this rooster will go to its death, and I will go to a long life of peace." The coins would go into the charity box, a modest price for such excellent life insurance. I asked my zayde about the chicken. He said, "They used to use a chicken and then kill him, but now we use money."
Now, 50 years later, it's two days before Yom Kippur, and I'm at Rabbi Laufer's minyan, with the usual crew of mute Russians, schizophrenics talking to the ceiling, and fervent young acolytes. The service ends, but Rabbi Laufer orders us to stay, and to arrange the tables end-to-end to form one long table, around which we sit. "Tonight, we shlug kapores!" crows Rabbi Laufer.
He runs from the main room to the kitchen and emerges, holding a large cardboard box. "I had to go all the way to the slaughterhouse in Johnston," he cries, as he pops open the top to reveal two live chickens, shrieking in terror, emerging from their box, white, but covered with brown liquefied feces. Zayde! Zayde! Here are the chickens! They still use them!
Rabbi Laufer instructs us in the incantation. He hands one chicken to through the curtain into the women's section, and holds the other over his head, one hand around the neck and the other around the feet. He runs around the table three times at full speed, holding the chicken over our heads, as we chant, "Zeh chalifosi...Zeh t'murosi...Zeh kaporosi; zeh hatarn'gol..." This time it's for real. I pray fervently, "Please God, please...don't let that chicken shit on my head!"
How primitive, I think. And we see the Mujahadeen and al-Keida and the Taliban as fanatics? As madmen? As irrational? Here's something to think about in the week following the World Trade Center bombings.
And yet again, once again, I am moved. If everyone shlugged kapores instead of bombs. If we all prayed for forgiveness, asked each other for forgiveness, forgave each other...
But what does the chicken think?
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