My mind was racing. How could it not? I was swinging a live chicken over my head while saying,
“This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This hen will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.”
I don’t normally sacrifice chickens, but this year on Yom Kippur I answered yes to my friend Joel’s Kapparot invitation on Facebook. In fact, I'm an atheist, a realist, a scientist: I don't believe in mystical transference, or divine redemption, none of it! So why was I about to go all ancient Jew on this hen from Joel’s backyard chicken coop in Atlanta? The simple answer is that I love new experiences and am always up for an adventure, but of course there was more. As I reflected over the past year I found myself struggling with atonement. My biggest sin was against myself: I hadn’t taken good care of my body and health and it affects me more and more, especially with my 40th birthday looming. I've made promises to myself to do better, but each year I failed miserably. This year, I was hoping that the Kapparot ritual would help me really feel the sadness and harm I have been inflicting on myself (and potentially my family) by not taking care of my health.
Earlier, as the three of us prepared the ritual space in Joel's backyard, we'd chatted nervously about what we were about to do. I'd never come close to experiencing animal slaughter; Joel had slayed an injured chicken once; Webb, my husband, had hunted doves as a teenager. Mostly, we'd remained happily unaware that animals die every day to feed our meat-eating habits. Books and movies such as Food, Inc. were making us face the truth: not only are most factory animal's deaths inhumane, but their lives are too. We knew one thing for sure: this hen had a good life.
“Cluck!” went the hen as I passed her to Webb and held the iPhone so he could recite the prayer and swing the bird simultaneously. Suddenly, I felt panicked. "Wait!" I said, "I want to say something else, give me the bird." I felt sad, my chest tightening, I wanted to cry. The traditional ritual wasn't enough. This bird was going to die for MY sins. I had to do more than just confess that I didn’t go to the gym. I needed to say more, at least acknowledge that I intended to change and not repeat the same damn mistakes over and over. I held the hen and looked into its eyes: "Hen, you are going to die today for my sins. I promise that your death will not be in vain. I promise to be better this year and take better care of my health. I promise to you, I will do better." She blinked, looking up at me blankly. I held this thought and feeling in my heart. "I will do better. Thank you, hen!"
Taking my cue, the guys followed my lead and made their own promises to the hen. Then it was time for slaughter. My heart was pounding. I turned away. When I looked again, the head was sliced completely off and lay on the ground. Joel continued to hold the headless body upside down, head-less wings flapping and clucking -- clucking! We all breathed deeply, somewhat in shock at what we'd just done and Webb handed each of us a feather. I kept repeating to myself: "I will not forget this hen, I will not forget this hen."
It’s been one week since we performed the Kapparot ritual on Yom Kippur and I’ve gone running twice. I also actually called the doctor about my lab results instead of just settling for the nurse's call last week. Now that we've experienced the death of our food, up close and personal, my husband and I are considering how we eat meat and how often we eat meat. While this isn’t exactly a transformation of reality television proportions, I am changing. It’s not easy, but I will keep the commitment I made to that bird.