Yom Kippur: Atonement to “at-one-ment“
On Yom Kippur we read the section of Deuteronomy which tells about becoming a covenant people, about remembering the teachings given our ancestors long ago. It is the continuation of what was traditionally thought to be a long speech by Moses in which he retells the history of the Israelite people, lays out a list of dos and don’ts and a set of blessings and curses, before he eventually dies. In the section we will read, the Israelites are told that this is the day they became the people of God.
Significantly, we will not only read this on Yom Kippur morning, but we will have read all of this very recently in the month of Elul as we prepared ourselves for the process of teshuvah—for returning to the covenant and to our partner in the covenant. But covenants are two-part deals. Each party in a covenant makes commitments to the other one—each partner must be present in an act of reconciliation.
שובה ישראל עד יהוה אלֹהיך
(Re)Turn Israel to the Eternal One your God (Hos. 14:2).
Given half a chance, most of us would probably gladly return to God, though we might differ in what we think “God” means or what “return” might look like. Maybe this urging to return to God speaks to us of a relationship with the Source of all that is; maybe we imagine a kind of whole-hearted homecoming, returning like the prodigal son. Maybe it makes us think of returning to our truest selves. One way or another, it sounds like a good idea doesn’t it?
But often, we get in our own way. The return doesn’t happen, doesn’t become real, because we imagine a distance that doesn’t need to be there. We get hung-up on all the ways we know ourselves to be distant from God and from the covenant handed down to us.
And it may be that the year past has not been an easy one. We may find ourselves frustrated and angry about injustices we have seen or experienced.
As I was thinking about this, I came across a Hasidic tale of repentance and renewal retold by Rabbi Or Rose, the brother of my friend Avi Rose.
As part of the preparation for Yom Kippur it was once common to observe the ritual of kapparot, an atonement ritual. In what seems to be an extension of the scapegoat ritual, on the day before Yom Kippur, one takes a live chicken and swings it around one’s head while proclaiming in Hebrew “This is offered in exchange for me; this is my ransom, this is my atonement. This fowl will go to its death; may I experience a long and pleasant life of peace.” The animal is then slaughtered and given to the poor for their pre-fast meal.
Very few still perform this rite with a live chicken—if it is done at all it is with coins. As Progressive Jews we would eschew such activities, both for the potential cruelty to the animal as well as for the underlying idea, which we reject.
But the following Hasidic tale casts a different light on the idea of kapparot —of “Atonements”.
A devoted hasid once visited his rebbe, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizensk, during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a special request: “Master, as a devoted member of the holy community of Lizensk, I have been blessed to witness you perform many of God’s sacred commands. However, I have never seen you perform the ritual of Kapparot. Would it be possible for me to do so this year?”
Reb Elimelekh replied, “While I am honoured that you want to see me perform the ritual of Kapparot, I must tell you that my enactment of this particular command is rather unremarkable. If you want to see someone carry out this ritual in a special manner, go to Moishe the innkeeper.”
And so, on the morning before Yom Kippur, the young hasid made his way to the home of Moishe the innkeeper to observe a special performance of the ritual of Kapparot.
Moishe began by sitting in a wooden chair in front of the small, fireplace in his living room. After positioning himself comfortably in the chair, he asked his wife to bring him the “two books of repentance.” Moishe’s wife dutifully brought her husband two tattered notebooks from his study.
Moishe opened the first book, read its contents carefully and then began to weep. The young man listened intently as Moishe read a list of rather minor sins the innkeeper had committed the previous year. After completing his reading, Moishe took the tear-stained book, swung it over his head and threw it into the fire.
He took a deep breath, repositioned himself in his seat, opened the second book, and repeated the ritual. This time, however, he read a somewhat longer list of sins—sins that God had committed the previous year. After completing his reading, Moishe took the tear-soaked book, swung it over his head and threw it into the fire.
As he did so he prayed:
“Dear Father, tomorrow is Yom Kippur, when everyone forgives and is forgiven. Let us put the past behind us. I didn’t always do what was asked of me and You didn’t always do what was asked of You. I forgive you and you forgive me, and we’ll call it even.“
The innkeeper was then ready for Yom Kippur.
On this Yom Kippur, may we find ways to articulate our own disappointment and sadness about the working of God’s world so that we can let go of our anger and frustration in order to truly engage in the process of teshuvah.
May this Day of Atonement be for us one of At-one-ment.
Rabbi Janet Darley
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.