Franz Kafka, the Leopard, & Yom Kippur

There is a wonderful two-line short story by Franz Kafka, more or less like this:

“One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail.

“Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy.”

Our task, in every generation, every year, is to let the leopard out of the cage of liturgy.

Scary, and full of life.

For example: How do we treat the Yom Kippur prophetic reading in which Isaiah calls on the crowd not just to fast but to share their bread with the hungry, their homes with the homeless, their clothes with the naked, and then to go one huge and highly political step further and break off the handcuffs put on by wicked power?

On Yom Kippur morning, that Haftarah can be read in any of four ways.

One way is to treat it as part of “the liturgy.”  Someone chants it in a droning Hebrew or reads it in a listless English.

Or we could read it with passion, even with strong music and powerful graphics.  For my own impassioned translation and a YouTube art-and-music video of “Isaiah Lives!"  click here:


OR –--  On this coming Yom Kippur, we could let the leopard leap from the page, roaring. We could notice that Isaiah disrupted the official Yom Kippur liturgy, that he says people yelled at him and shook their fists when he broke into the pleasant Levite chanting.

Today someone could actually break through Isaiah’s words for the sake of Isaiah’s truth –- perhaps suddenly in the middle of the Haftarah shouting out a headline about a homeless old man found frozen to death on a wintry downtown street; then, a few verses later, another headline about 300 people lining up in hope of a job when the Postal Service announced three vacancies;

Or someone could read a brief paragraph (just after the verse about the handcuffs) describing how an Arizona sheriff  deliberately feeds rotted food  to immigrants he has imprisoned and forces them to work outside in 130-degree heat.  Or a paragraph about how the US government has explicitly refused to put on trial those who ordered the torture of prisoners.

OR – We could break through the cage of words altogether, and actually do what Isaiah tells us that God, the Breath of Life,  demands:

 How? First someone could read aloud these words:

"In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of others -– the largest gathering in US history of Natives from all their many nations, plus many Americans of other communities --  have gathered to protect the sacred ancestral lands of the Sioux and the Missouri River from the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

"Native people have gathered since last Spring to protect both the graves of their forebears from desecration and their water from poisoning, with the call that "Water is Life" -- Mayim Hayim.

"They are protecting our beloved Mother Earth for the sake of all of us, all life and future generations.

 "For the pipeline will mean still more emissions of CO2 and methane to burn our Mother Earth.

 "The encampments are peaceful, drug and alcohol free, where the elders and tribal leaders conduct daily ceremony and prayer.

 "Yet they face soldiers with rifles loaded and pointed at them as they peacefully pray.

 "They have pledged to camp all winter -- to insure that the pipeline does not get built through their tribal lands.  They need donations to purchase winter supplies, food, tipees, and other necessities."

AND THEN --  as God and Isaiah cry out to us, to feed the hungry and clothe those exposed to wintry chill, to help them face with brave nonviolence the weapons aimed at them by domineering power, come to prayer on Yom Kippur ready as the break-fast begins on Tuesday night to write a check made out to  "Standing Rock Sioux Tribe --- Pipeline Protest Donation Fund." Collect the checks and send them that very night to  Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Attention: Donations, PO Box D, Building #1, North Standing Rock Avenue,  Fort Yates, ND 58538


Another leopard we could free: On Rosh Hashanah we read two painful stories –-  one about Abraham’s expulsion of Ishmael his son and Ishmael’s mother Hagar from Abraham’s family, into a wilderness where they were on the point of death from thirst; and the other, about Abraham preparing to put his son Isaac to death at what he thought was God’s command. For both of Abraham’s sons, at the very last moment, God intervenes –-- and both their lives are saved.

Their story does not end with bare survival. Later in the Torah (Gen 25: 7-11), on a Shabbat when many fewer people will be in synagogue to hear, we are told that after twenty years apart, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their dangerous father, and then Isaac went to live at Ishmael’s wellspring.

This Yom Kippur, what about lifting up and reading this passage of tshuvah and slichah, “turning” and “reconciliation”? For Yom Kippu is precisely the festival that is supposed to bring us to tshuvah and slichah.

After reading the brief passage from the Torah Scroll, what about then having members of the community pair off, one in each pair to become “Isaac” and one to become “Ishmael”?  They could have the conversation the two brothers might have had at Abraham’s graveside.

Perhaps they would find themselves discussing how we in our own families might achieve reconciliation before our relatives die. Or perhaps they would talk about their modern descendants. Could Jews and Arabs achieve reconciliation if we mourned those dead among both our peoples who have died at each others’ dangerous hands?

Still another leopard: Traditionally we read Eleh Ezkereh, “These we remember,” often called the Martyrology, about ten great Rabbis tortured to death by the Roman Empire.

What about adding martyrs of our own generations who were killed (often along with non-Jews) for upholding values that are profoundly Jewish? –-  like Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, murdered by the KKK in Mississippi; like Ronni Karpen Moffit who along with Orlando Letelier was murdered on the streets of Washington DC by the fascist junta that overthrew an elected Government of Chile; like David “Gypsy” Chain, killed because he was trying to prevent the logging of magnificent ancient redwoods for the sake of corporate profit?

For the stories of ten such modern “martyrs,” please click to


Every year we read by rote the prayerbook’s printed list of sins or misdeeds that we promise to leave behind.

Suppose that before Kol Nidre we wrote on four little cards of different colors our own sins: on a pink card, our sins against our family; on a green card, our sins against the Earth; and so on. All unsigned. For each  Al Chet, each recitation of our sins, we would shuffle and hand out the collection of the cards of one of these colors, and then each person would call out the sin of an unknown someone else.

As the prayerbook says, “We have sinned by …” The community would see what its own failings had been this very year, without shaming any particular person. A true invitation to do tshuvah, to turn our lives around

At the end of the long day, all these cards could be collected and burned, kindling a fire to light up our path into the future, turning ourselves toward life.

Finally: At the very end of Yom Kippur, we blow and hear one last long blast upon the Shofar.

We blow our breath into the small end of this Ram’s Horn, and out of the other, larger end emerges a blast of uncanny, eerie, untuned sound –--  or a music we train ourselves to shape.

“Awake!” Awake to the radiant beauty of our Earth! Awake to the scorching that hangs over us! Awake to the hurts we have suffered, the hurts we have caused, the hurts we have seen and turned away! Awake to the loving warmth we have slept through, oblivious!

This is a metaphor for every human being. Hearing the Shofar, each one of us could turn our hearts to hearing our own self as a Shofar.

The Breath of Life, the Interbreathing of the world, blows into us. A "still, small, voice" –-- blown into our small openings of nose, of mouth, of throat.

And then comes forth from the larger opening that is our life-time a far larger sound to shape the world. Words, actions – our whole lives  --- that may be untuned, discordant  --  or a music of loving care.  The music of a loving future, calling from our children to ourselves.

To hear our own selves become a Shofar -- our own selves call out “Awake!” --  would free the Leopard from the cage of liturgy.

Indeed, all these acts would fling open the cage of “liturgy,” let the Leopard out to roar and lash Her tail, let ourselves be shaken by His passion and compassion.

If we do this when we gather, we may find when the gates are closing at the end of the long long thirsty day that we have indeed experienced the transformation Yom Kippur was intended to make happen. 



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