Sermon for Atonement

Aldo Mondino, Kapparot


My fiancee works at a private Jewish high school in town.  He loves it.  Many times the mixture of him (WASP) and the students (mostly Jewish and hailing anywhere from Israel to Mexico) strikes all of us as just hysterically funny.  I find myself amused in no small part because he teaches in the neighborhood I grew up in, then and now chock full of Jews.  Old hat for me, but for my fiancee everything feels new: the Shabbat service on Friday, the abundance of days off in October, the Ma’amad he’ll have to present in December.  My father, a long time fanatic of the 6-man football phenomenon in West Texas, is tickled silly that my fiancee’s school has a 6-man team.

I like when he comes home and says things like, “I love that everyday we get to eat Challah.  Holla!” and lifts the roof with his hands.  I roll my eyes, but it’s still funny.

Occasionally, though, he’ll bring home something sincere and serious, and in truth he takes the whole place sincerely and seriously, as he should.  This past Wednesday Jews all over celebrated Yom Kippur, a day of atonement.  Even I had the school day off.  My fiancee told me a story about a strange act of atonement that the school community performed together based on the custom of Kapparot.  Originally the custom required use of a live chicken, into which the sins of the individual could transfer during the ceremony.   Each person would swing the chicken three times in a circle above her head while reciting these words: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”  Then the rooster or hen is slaughtered and given to the hungry to feed them, thus ridding the sinner of his sins.

At my fiancee’s school, they did not use live animals, thankfully.  Instead, in a more compassionate version of the ceremony, each student wrote down his sins on a piece of paper, wrapped the paper in a dollar bill and swung the dollar bill over his head three times while reciting the requisite words.  Afterward, the rabbis took the money to the needy and burned the papers filled with the all the sins of teenagers.

“What was your sin?” I asked my fiancee.

“I didn’t write one down.  The teachers didn’t have to write one down.  Just the students,” he said.

I forgot about it after a few hours.

But yesterday morning I remembered.  I woke up and shook my fiancee awake.

“Baby.  We should write down _________ and put it in money and then give it away.”

He didn’t laugh.  We had some atoning to do toward each other.

I’m sure our version of Kapparot differed in almost every visible way from the original custom.  We used the back of a torn envelope.  Both of us wrote something down about abusing alcohol a little too often; I quickly scribbled down a few more things I never said out loud.  And won’t.  I only had a $10 dollar bill so that’s what we used.   He went first.  I recited second.  We stood on our rained-out deck, the deep green ivies dripping fat drops of water onto the brick walls, steam rising up from the humid earth beneath the wood planks below our feet, cars humming past toward the makeshift entrance to I-10 at the end of our block.

We burned our scraps of envelope with a citronella candle that never staves off mosquitoes, ever.  We watched them fizzle and curl their way way down to black and ash.  Because of the cry-your-eyes-out downpour so typical of a September in Houston, we couldn’t find anyone outside to pass on our $10 dollar bill to, even in the usual places under the freeway.  We’ll do that today.  I am under no illusion that we will improve the world in any real way because we gave a homeless guy some money, nor should we permit ourselves any self-satisfaction from this symbolic act.

But listen.  I have always been moved by the idea of atonement.  My favorite holy day of obligation in the Catholic church was and still is Ash Wednesday.  I love that mass.  I never miss it.  Let me here say something about the difference between atonement and repentance.  A Jewish colleague of mine told me her rabbi conceptualizes atonement as “at-one-ment”, a way to become whole again, to recreate the sacred unity between man and the divine, and man and his fellow man.  Certainly “at-one-ment” captures the spirit of Ash Wednesday too.  On these days–Yom Kippur and Ash Wednesday–we are not called to repent or wrack ourselves with guilt.  We acknowledge our broken and torn souls, and ask for stitches.  We do this in communion with others, because a god will use these people around us as the thread through which she passes her needle and stitch them into our skin like train tracks or road paint methodically spread down a long, lonesome highway we all must travel, the entire act like any healing both public and intensely private at once.

Frivolous and antiquated as it may seem (I kept picturing the narrow backyard of a Brooklyn brownstone, the poor fowl screeching for dear life above the din of taxis, Latin beats blared into the streets, and subway cars tumbling overhead), I like the idea of the chicken, or at least the idea that we may release our “sins” instead of bury them inside our bodies to be confessed again and again and again.  So many useless Hail Marys.  I like the idea even that atonement may require a blood-letting of sorts, that our ability to forgive ourselves and others is a matter of life and death.  I also like the final movement of Kapparot, that instinct toward generosity and giving, without which no atonement can ever come full circle.   Confession is not enough; one much actively love others and engage with the divine to repair the world.  And no matter how dirty and down low we get, we always can engage in such repair.

What an invaluable lesson for teenagers.  And for all of us.