This year, my Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) involved a little more farm-style action than expected….
Just as the new year was beginning – as people elegantly dressed in white and refreshingly cleansed after weeks of farm work began to gather for hugs and new years greetings, I said hello while apologizing for having to run so quickly to do my evening chore – putting the chickens to sleep.
The chicken coop in the evening is a magical place. I’ve loved having the chore of taking care of the chickens – poop scooping and all – if only for the moment of serenity that came in the evenings when putting them to sleep. Every evening, like clockwork, the chickens go back to their coop to sleep (and stay safe from predators) when the sun comes down. I had the amazing chance to leave evening sessions or stop whatever I was doing to swing by the chicken coop and observe the beauty that was the sunset over a quiet field. Our main farm is surrounded by beautiful hills, all the more fanciful these days as the colors are changing for fall. Even more magnificent is the resounding silence; after a day of squacking and clucking and pecking and chasing each other around the coop, all that can be heard by the time I arrive at sunset is the flutter of the last few sets of wings settling into the coop and the nighttime surround sound echo of crickets in the field. Simply. AMZAZING.
So, on this rosh hashanah eve, I took my usual contemplative stroll over to the chickens, thinking about this beautiful opportunity to spend time outside while welcoming in the new year. I took my usual moment to appreciate the beauty of the field at nighttime, closed the chicken coop, wished them laila tov (good night), and started to walk away.
But then…I heard a rustle in the bushes. I saw where it was coming from and noticed a chicken stuck – literally – between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes the chickens get out of the coop during the day (either by flying or sneaking through gates), and this particular individual was trying to make her way back home…through a wire fence…surrounded on multiple sides by a downward sloping hill with large rocks at the bottom.
First I tried to push the chicken over. It went to a different spot where it promptly started pecking at a different spot in the fence (I admired its commitment; and also, this pecking plan was going nowhere). I tried reaching over the fence to pick up the chicken, but the fence was too tall. I tried coaxing the chicken up to higher ground where it could fly over, but it kept wandering back down the hill to spots where it could get stuck.
It was getting dark. Even if I had gone to the other side of the fence where the chicken was, I likely could have injured myself trying to find it. I realized I needed help.
I speedily walked back to Rosh Hashanah services, my heart racing a mile a minute. I nervously went to one of my directors, anxious at the fact that I was interrupting his own prayer experience on one of the holiest days of the year with a question about chickens. I hurriedly explained the situation to him and decided it was fine to go after services were over.
The 40 minutes or so that I actually sat in services after that seemed like a terrifying eternity. The only text running through my head was from some of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy acknowledging our own feebleness and vulnerability in the upcoming year:
“WHO WILL LIVE AND WHO WILL DIE”
“WHO BY FIRE, WHO BY WATER”
In addition to these traditional texts, I added:
“WHO BY FOX”
“WHO BY COYOTE”
“WHO BY INABILITY NAVIGATE ONESELF BACK TO THE CHICKEN COOP”
Various horrific visions of chicken slaughter passed through my mind, and I couldn’t concentrate on the communal prayer around me at all.
When services ended, I must have had a stunned look on my face as I tried to explain the situation to some of my farming compadres…and a friend quickly offered to go back and help.
Headlamp in hand (I hadn’t planned to use electricity for the holiday, but there’s a Jewish tradition that laws can be broken to save a life…I am hoping this applies to chickens as well)….we went on a night hike down the side of the hilly ravine where the chicken was hiding. We coaxed the chicken uphill to a spot where I could finally grab it. I threw the chicken over the fence. It flapped its wings enough to make a soft landing, then waddled towards the coop. I opened the door again (the already sleepy chickens luckily did not take this as an opportunity to wander out), threw our wandering chicken friend back in with the rest of her posse, and breathed a HUGE sigh of relief.
SO…when you live on a Jewish farm, prayer can come in many forms and in strange ways. This was probably the least amount of time I’ve spent in organized prayer space on Rosh Hashanah eve in recent memory. And it was certainly the only Rosh Hashanah when I had such vivid visions of some of those traditional texts floating through my mind. I think the most important part of my prayer that night WAS the chickens…as well as the process of navigating my own sense of responsibility, boundaries, and the frequent need to seek help in the community in order to do what needs to be done. Thank g-d no chickens were harmed that night. And I hope their new year started a little bit sweeter because of it.