Monday, October 27, 2014

In Memory of Mac Hill, a Good Scout

Mac at Barnum Day Camp, 2013,
showing off his design project
Mac Hill, former member of Cub Scout Pack 185 (Pine County, MN), died on Thursday, October 23 in a heartbreaking accident.  He was an active member of our Pack at the Audubon Center of the North Woods before changing schools, when schedule conflicts intervened, but we kept in touch.

Mac was very interested in science and ecology and once told me he wanted to be a scientist.  I can remember him getting really excited the first time he met with us at Audubon and saw the solar panels and other "green" technologies (Audubon is completely off the grid.)

Here you see him showing off his design for a bridge made of marshmallows and toothpicks at the "Gizmos, Gadgets, and Goo"  STEM-themed Cub Scout Day Camp in Barnum, MN in 2013.  He also did a great job of designing a container for the camp egg drop that year -- it survived the fall from the top of the grandstand just fine!

Mac was a great kid and will be deeply missed by all of us.

A memorial service for Mac will be held on Tuesday, October 28 at 1:00 PM at:

The O'Connell Family Funeral Home
520 11th Street South
 Hudson, WI 54016
Phone: (715) 386-3725

Flowers can be sent there.

In addition, a memorial fund has been set up at:

Cards and donations can also be sent to:

Wendy and David Hill
c/o The Red Thread
P.O. Box 52
Askov, MN 55704

Please keep Mac's family in your prayers.  And feel free to share this post.

Rabbi Gershom, Cubmaster,
Pack 185

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Father Goose adopts flock of Guinea Fowl

Junior and Prince
This is the story of an inter-species friendship between Prince the Goose (white bird in photo on the right) and a flock of guineas.  Prince and his son, Junior (grey bird in photo), are the last of a small flock of geese we have had on our hobby farm.  Geese live a long time -- Prince is now 14, Junior 13 -- and I'm not getting any younger, so I have let the flock slowly dwindle from old age. (We are vegetarians.  We eat the eggs but do not slaughter.)

With geese, the ganders help care for the young.  Since Prince no longer has a mate and there are no goslings around, he has turned his affections toward my guineas.  From the moment I brought home four half-grown guineas last fall, he has taken a most paternal instinct toward them.

When they first arrived, I had to keep them in a cage inside the coop for a couple weeks before letting them free range -- otherwise they would try to "home" back to where they came from -- and Prince stood guard by the cage every night.  When I finally did let them loose, he followed them around the yard.  Junior went along, but it was primarily Prince who set the pace.  And he made sure they went back in the coop, too.  If they tried roosting in a tree, he stood at the bottom and raised a ruckus!  By the time the first snow came, they were well trained to go inside.

The guineas turned out to be three males and a female.  I really had no intention of breeding her, but she had other ideas.  Her first nest she built too close to the road for comfort.  Prince was having a fit because the road is his boundary and the males were going across it to my neighbor's yard.  That's how I found the nest.  I took the eggs before she started setting, hoping that would be the end of it.

Can't find Molly?  Click photo to
enlarge and try again!
So what did she do?  She hid her second nest closer to the coop in the tall grass.  I didn't find this one until she was incubating, so I let her be.  If you look really, really closely in the photo, you can see her in there.  That brave bird sat through two very strong rainstorms and held fast to her eggs -- I thought for sure I'd find her drowned the second time, when high winds brought four inches of rain within hours.  But she built well, on top of a little rise, earning her the name "Molly Brown"  (of Titanic fame, since both survived dangerous waters.)  Why didn't I move her inside?  Because moving a guinea nest is very risky.  They are wild, flighty birds who often abandon the eggs if disturbed.  Better to leave nature alone.

Molly's well-hidden nest
There were 15 eggs.  12 hatched but one baby died, leaving 11.  I wasn't sure exactly when she started sitting, so I checked every day.  Luckily I found them right after hatching, because the grass is cold and wet in the morning this late in the year.  That can mean death to new keets. So I caught them all with mother Molly and put them in a large cage inside.

Prince stood by them outside the cage, often not even wanting to come outside the coop.  When they were feathered out and big enough, I turned them loose -- and here you can see both ganders herding the flock around the yard!

Prince herds the flock home toward evening, fall 2014.

Prince and Junior guarding the flock
in the chicken yard, fall 2014. 

Welcome to my new blog design!

When I started this blog nine years ago, the available layouts were much simpler.  I decided to update and move the index of topics to the left sidebar so it is immediately available.  (It was getting so long it was lost in the old location).  I moved a few other things around, too, and I'll be tweaking it some more before I'm satisfied, but I do think this will be much easier to navigate.  Enjoy!

P.S.: In case you are interested, as of this writing this blog averages 150-200 page views per day, or about 4500+ per month.  The most popular posts are listed on the right sidebar, with "do animals have souls?" being the alltime #1 hit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Blood Moon was beautiful on the morning before Sukkot starts, 5775

Tonight the Festival of Sukkot (booths) begins.  Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, Sukkot always begins on a full moon.   So nothing unusual about that.  What was special this year was the beautiful "blood moon" eclipse this morning (October 8, 2014).  It reached totality at 5:55 AM here in Minnesota, and is currently trending all over the Net.  In some places, people gathered for "blood moon parties" to watch and enjoy it.  That would have been fun, but out here in rural Minnesota, it was a solitary experience for me.

Here on our little hobby farm, I was up at 4 AM cooking food for the Festival so that I could use the daylight hours to finish setting up my sukkah booth.   The local news stations were covering the eclipse, so every half hour or so there was a live update during the weather report.

Just before totality, I went outside to take a look.  The sky was clear but the trees were in the way, so I had to walk out to the road to get a good view.  (We have a much better view of the sky in the east, where I often take wonderful dawn photos.  But this time around, the eclipse was happening as the moon was setting in the west, where we have a windbreak of trees and bushes.)

We live out of town on a dirt road with zero traffic this time of night, so I could stand there moon gazing, but it was also pretty cold  -- in the mid 30s -- so I didn't stay out long.  In fact, it was so chilly that there were no crickets chirping.  Nor were there any other nature sounds.  The wind, which had been blowing hard the last few days, was now still.  No traffic sounds, either -- even the freeway, which I can sometimes faintly hear at night if a noisy truck goes by, was silent.

Then, for some reason known only to himself, one of my roosters crowed.

According to an old superstition, a rooster crowing at night is a bad omen.  So is a blood moon in some cultures.  So a blood moon and a rooster crowing at the same time -- oy vey, is that a double whammy?

Hardly.  I'm not superstitious.  I see these things as natural phenomena, period.   One of my favorite stories is the one about the Jewish archer is the Roman army who asked why they had stopped marching.  His commading officer pointed to a certain bird in a tree was an omen telling them to stop.  Whereupon the archer shot the bird and said, "That bird could not even protect itself from my arrow, so how can it protect an army?"  (Sad that the bird had to die, but the point was made:  Looking for omens in natural events is not a Jewish practice.)

Returning to the eclipse, I did take time to make the brochah (blessing) osseh ma-asseh bereshit -- praising "The One (God) Who creates the works of Creation" -- that Jews are supposed to say upon seeing a wonder of nature.  It may not be an omen, but it is a wonderful thing to look at.

My wife, who has difficulty walking and some balance problems when walking in the dark, opted to stay inside.  So I downloaded this beautiful photo on taken in Nebraska by John W. Johnson of the Virtual Telescope Project.  I set it up as the desktop wallpaper on the computer, where we can both enjoy it today, as we continue to prepare for the holiday tonight.

Peace and blessings! 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On Kapporos: The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why do you tell me not to?

As has been my custom for the past few years, I am writing my annual essay against using chickens for kapporos, the atonement ceremony before Yom Kippur.  My previous articles dealt mostly with the history and philosophy behind the ceremony, directed at activists who were planning protests and/or educating themselves about the history and philosophy behind this practice.  This time around, I am going to address my fellow Orthodox Jews from within our own tradition.  (Although, of course, everyone else is welcome to read it as well.)

When I suggest to fellow Hasidim that we should no longer use chickens for kapporos, the most common answer I get is this:

"The Holy Ari did it with a chicken; the Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken; the Rebbe did it with a chicken -- and weren't they holy people?  So why do you say it is wrong now?"

The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe
making kapporos
My vegan friends would probably reply that killing a chicken is cruel, period, and that our ancestors were a bunch of barbarians for ever doing it in the first place.  However, that is not an answer that would satisfy us as religious Jews.  In fact, it is downright counterproductive, sometimes even antisemitic.  I believe our sages and ancestors were holy people, who were in tune with God and would never be intentionally cruel to animals.  So my Torah-based answer to the question is this:

Yes it is true that many of our greatest rabbis and teachers did kapporos with a chicken.  But they also treated the chickens with care and respect.  

They understood that chickens are living beings with feelings.   It is said that when the Holy Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, sharpened his knife, he moistened the stone with his own tears.  (Shivchei Ha-Besht) Our religion acknowledges that Eden was vegetarian, and that in an ideal world, this is what we would all be.  But this world is not Eden.  Eating meat was a necessity in Old Russia and Ukraine in the 1700s.  Before the days of year-round fresh veggies flown in from everywhere, being a healthy vegetarian was virtually impossible in northern climates.  So the Torah does permit slaughter.  But the Baal Shem Tov at least felt deep sadness that something had to die in order for the people to live.
Now look around you at the kapporos centers.  Is anybody weeping for the deaths of the chickens like the Holy Baal Shem Tov did?  

Probably not.  I have been laughed at and ridiculed by fellow Hasidim for saying that chickens have feelings.  One heckler even asked, "Do you really think chickens are smart enough to know what is happening to them?"  Yes, I do.  Modern research shows that chickens have an intelligence level at least as high as that of a three or four year old child.  Think about that next time you see a pre-schooler or bounce your own child on your knee.  That child is certainly aware enough to suffer pain, hunger, and fear of death.  And so is a chicken.  The Baal Shem Tov understood this.  His modern followers do not.

Yes, it is also true that the Holy Ari also did it with a chicken back in the 1500s.  But he, too, was sensitive to the suffering of animals.  Consider the following story: 

It happened one day in Sfat, Israel, that Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist known as the Holy Ari (Ari-Hakodesh), ordered one of his students to leave him immediately.  The student felt terrible.  What sin had he committed to deserve this?  All that day he wept and prayed to G-d that his sins should not keep him banished from his Rebbe’s presence.

The next morning he came to the Holy Ari and begged to be told what wrong he had done.  The Holy Ari said,” It is because of your chickens.  Three days now they have been without food.  They cried out to HaShem and because of this, you have been under a ban (karet) from Heaven.  Now, if you promise to feed your chickens even before your morning prayers, I will loosen the ban on you.”  The student promised to do so, and the ban was lifted.  (From Shivchei Ha-Ari)

From this we learn how much HaShem our Creator, Who “has compassion for all the creatures,” cares about the suffering of chickens.  The student’s sin was tzaar baalei chayyim, cruelty to animals.  The cries of those starving chickens were canceling out his Torah learning and banning his prayers from reaching Heaven.
Now, stop and listen to the voices of all the hungry, thirsty chickens at the kapporos centers. 

Those are NOT the sounds of happy birds, they are NOT singing in joy at "helping us do a mitzvah," as some people have been taught to believe. You are hearing the anguished cries that chickens make when they are in fear and pain.   Last year (2013) thousands of chickens in New York kapporos centers died of thirst and hunger during a prolonged heat wave.  In previous years, chickens that were not sold by the eve of Yom Kippur were abandoned in warehouses.  There they spent our most holy day of repentance slowly dying of neglect.  Again, recall the story of the Ari and the chickens above.  How is this any different?

Are those sad cries rising to Heaven and canceling out your Torah and mitzvot, Heaven forbid?   Even worse, are they canceling out the prayers of the whole Jewish community?  

This is a very serious question.  We are taught in kabbalah that when we use the things of this world -- mineral, vegetable, or animal -- for serving God, then we elevate the Holy Sparks (netzotzot) within those things and effect a tikkun olam -- a repair of the universe.   This is a classic Hasidic teaching,  we find it in the writings of all our Rebbes, starting with the Baal Shem Tov himself.

But the reverse is also true:  If we do not use the material world with holiness and respect, the sparks are not raised, and we drag the world down.   Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said that if shechitah (kosher slaughter) is not performed correctly and with the proper kavannah (focused intention), then the sparks are not elevated, and we absorb negativity (klippot) from the life-force of the animal.  (See Likutei Moharan #37).

Combined with the story of the Ari above, I interpret this to mean not only the actual moment of slaughter must be proper, but also how the chickens are treated beforehand.  I am pretty sure that Rebbe Nachman would not have approved of using today's abused, starving chickens.

So we must indeed ask ourselves:  Is the mistreatment of chickens at today's kapporos centers elevating sparks, or is it blocking our prayers from reaching Heaven?

Portrait of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer,
the Baal Shem Tov
There are many Hasidic stories about how prayers were being blocked from rising upward, usually due to some sin blocking the way.  The Baal Shem Tov himself once refused to enter a synagogue because it was so full of such prayers that there was no room for him to go in.  He said, "Those prayers are all dead prayers. They have no strength to fly to heaven. They are crushed, they lie one on top of the other, the house is filled with them." (Meyer Levin, Classic Hasidic Tales) 

So:  Would the Baal Shem Tov be able to enter today's kapporos centers?  Or would his entry be blocked by dead prayers that do not rise upward to Heaven?

Today we have hardened our hearts to the suffering of God’s creatures.  Kapporos chickens are crammed into small cages, shipped for miles in open trucks, stacked for days in hot warehouses without any food or water, then handled roughly like cheap  merchandise.  People stand around gossiping, while they carelessly hold the chickens by the wings as if they were nothing but shopping bags.  Dangling them this way is very painful for the bird, and can result in torn muscles and ligaments in the wings, because a chicken's wings are not strong enough to support its body weight.

This gross disrespect for living things is NOT the way our ancestors held chickens in the past.  All of the old drawings I have seen show the chickens being held upright by the legs, or supporting the body with their hands, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe is doing in the picture above.  This dangling them by the wings is a modern cruelty learned, most likely, from the factory farm industry.  (I have seen gentile farmers doing this.)

Such cruelty does not elevate the Holy Sparks!   It drags us down into sin.  You cannot commit a sin to do a mitzvah! 

Or a minhag, for that matter.  Any validity the ceremony might have had in the past is canceled out by the cruelty to the chickens in modern times.  Precisely because of how the chickens are transported and sold nowadays, many rabbis recommend using money instead. 

In addition, there is the issue of waste.  In the past, people often gave their kapporos chicken to a poor family as tsedakah (charity). This charity was part of the kapporos ritual, it completed the tikkun. 

"Repentence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree."

Bags of dead kapporos chickens in
garbage truck, 2013
But today, the chickens often end up in the garbage. The reasons often given is that there is no time to kasher them properly, or that they were somehow injured or damaged and not kosher to begin with. Think about that.  In the past, families would take their slaughtered chickens home, to pluck and kasher them for the pre-Yom Kippur meal.  But in this day of shrink-wrapped meats, few people do that themselves anymore.  So the chickens are simply tossed into garbage cans.

That violates the prohibition against needlessly wasting something  (bal tashchit).  Last year, under several news articles about how these chickens were ending up in the city dump, there were numerous comments asking:  "Why didn't they give them to the homeless shelters?  Or the local soup lines?"  Such blatant waste of food while people go hungry is a shanda, a public disgrace that reflects badly on the Jewish people.  Here there are people going hungry, and we throw the chickens in the dump?  Where is the holiness in that?

Sickly, injured chickens crammed in a
cage, waiting to be used for kapporos.
These are not the happy free-range
chickens our ancestors used.
Even in the days of the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, the meat was never just thrown away.  On the contrary.  It was holy, and had to be eaten as a sacred meal in a place that was ritually purified.   And because the sacrifices had to be perfect specimens without any blemishes, the animals were no doubt treated very well before the sacrifice -- not like the factory-farmed, miserable, starving kapporos chickens of today.

As our Sages teach us, the world is like a set of scales.  Every good deed tips the world to the side of good, and every sin tips it to the side of evil, heaven forbid.   

Is the cruelty in today's kapporos centers canceling out our prayers on Yom Kippur?  Is it adding to the burden of sin in the world?

Again, these are serious questions.  Giving money to charity instead of using a chicken eliminates all these questions of cruelty and kashrut. You can avoid absorbing negative klippah energy into your life and that of your family.  You can be sure that the monetary value of the chicken really is going to the poor and not to the city dump.  You can be more certain that your prayers are not being blocked from rising to Heaven.  You can be sure you are making a real tikkun -- the act of charity that averts the evil decree -- and not contributing to the burden of sin in the world.

For all these reasons,  I feel it is time for us to stop using chickens for kapporos and give money instead.  

May you have an easy fast, and may you be sealed for a good new year!

*  *  *

I have written a condensed one-page printable version of this article, suitable for a flyer or small poster.   Download the PDF here.   Feel free to print and hand it out, adding your own local contact info at the bottom.

See also: Kapporos Chickens don't Sing! -- my 2013 article on the misconceptions about chickens that you may hear at kapporos centers, etc.