Don’t be chicken

  • Nossel
This is supposed to be an article about the portion of the week. It is not. It is an article about a different portion – a portion of chicken. But not any portion of chicken.
by Rabbi Dr David Nossel | Mar 22, 2018

I’m talking about the portion of chicken that has taken up a sizeable portion of our headspace over the past few weeks. The portion of chicken that so many of us partook of as we attended a Jewish function and that we have now discovered may well not have been kosher.

What significance should we apportion to this occurrence? Is there something that we can learn from it? Does it provide us with a take-home lesson that we can grow from?

It certainly does, if one is not chicken. And we Jews are not supposed to be chicken. We are praised as a people who look for messages that allow us to grow, even if they make us feel uncomfortable. We do not run away from rebuke; rather, we seek it out.

The final book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy), starts with the words “And these are the words”. Rashi explains the inclusion of the definite article – the words – in this way: If these are the words, they must be the most valuable words, the greatest words; and if they are the greatest words, they for sure must be words of rebuke. For us, the words of rebuke are the meat and potatoes of our spiritual diet.

Furthermore, as Jews, we understand that everything that happens to us is under G-d’s divine supervision. And, as such, everything that happens to us comes from heaven, is meaningful and is in our best interests. Unlike the character Chicken-Licken in the children’s story, who’s convinced that the sky is falling, we aren’t scared of heaven falling on our heads. We’re willing to look up to heaven for guidance and direction.

So, what is the take-home message? 

In the world of Jewish symbolism, chickens represent something specific: the pursuit of physical pleasure. Chickens love to eat. Our rabbis teach Jewish men not to “hang around their wives like chickens”.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, there is the well-kept custom of Kapparot, or atonements. Some have the custom of waving money around their heads; others prefer to stick to chickens. There are two profound lessons that this custom teaches us. Firstly, it provides us with the sobering reminder that even on the eve of the great and awesome Day of Atonement, our headspace is still occupied by money, and for some it is occupied by chicken. The second part of the custom is to give the money and chicken to the needy.

The second lesson here is more powerful than the first. It teaches us that we can find atonement for our pursuit of pleasure by looking for the pursuit of the pleasure of those less fortunate than ourselves as well.

God created us with money and chicken on the brain. That’s the reality, and as such it is okay. But there is kosher chicken and non-kosher chicken. When we assess the ‘kosherness’ of a chicken solely on the basis of its being fit to go into our mouths, it might technically be considered kosher according to the letter of the law, but how kosher is it according to the spirit of the law?

For a chicken to be ‘truly kosher’ it needs to be channelled into the mouths of the needy as well. No doubt the same applies to money. Perhaps this is the message that we should not be chicken of.

I am no prophet, but I myself hosted a wonderful simcha where the very chickens we are all concerned about were served. It was a magnificent celebration. The music was fantastic, the decor magnificent. And the food? Too wonderful. 

I’m not too chicken to say that I have learned that I must have over-apportioned my money and chickens to my own friends and guests, and lost sight of those who are more needy.

And that’s just not kosher. 


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