The Secret of Tashlich
One of my fondest memories of Rosh Hashana, growing up in suburban Long Island, was tashlich. For those of you who don't know, tashlich is a ceremony that takes place on the first day of Rosh Hashana in the afternoon. That alone was enough to endear tashlich to me, because it meant that the synagogue services were over. As a kid growing up, I was sure that the High Holiday services were in themselves a source of penitence. I figured if you could live through the eight hour service, listening to the cantorial performances, G-d would feel so bad for you, He would immediately forgive all your sins.
Another nice thing about tashlich was the chance to commune with nature. The way tashlich works is as follows: You go down to a river, preferably one with fish, and you empty your pockets into the water. You then read from the book of the Prophet Micha verses about teshuva, repentance. Then, in solemn procession you return to synagogue for the afternoon service. Now that I live in Jerusalem, tashlich just hasn't been the same. You see, Jerusalem isn't blessed with many rivers. Although we have several wadis that serve as the runoff for untreated sewage, it's just not the same. So Jerusalemites have to be more creative. People stand at the bottom of water tanks, on the hills above swimming pools, beside their kitchen sinks or above sealed pits that legend says used to be wells.
A number of years ago I was spending Rosh Hashana in the yeshiva where I was teaching, and we went in search of tashlich. We followed the natives to a local park where there was a large yellow metal box. Inside, we were told, was a well. I emptied my pockets and began reciting the verses when one of my students came over to me. Sadly, he had never seen tashlich. "What exactly are we doing here, Rabbi?" he asked innocently. "We are casting our sins into the water," I responded. He looked at me in disbelief. "You're kidding, right? I mean, won't they just bounce off the box?" That made me stop, and together we stared at the box.
I guess when there is an actual river there, it's a little easier to imagine you're throwing your sins into the water. But does that make any more sense? How can we just throw away our sins? Don't we have to repent? Don't we have to resolve to change, to become better people? Does this mean I don't have to go to synagogue anymore and listen to the cantor?
It seems to me that the purpose of the tashlich ceremony is in fact to facilitate our desire to do teshuva, to return to G-d. There are two terms in Judaism that are important terms for understanding the proper approach to life.
When a boy becomes thirteen and a girl twelve, they become bar mitzvah or bas mitzvah, respectively. Literally that means becoming a "son or a daughter of the commandments." But when a person violates a transgression, they become a ba'al aveira, literally an "owner of sin." You are viewed as a child of a mitzvah, but a possessor of transgression.
The difference is profound. When a child does something wrong, or when a child does something bad, or for that matter when a child does something that is the epitome of evil, there are two things you can say. You can tell him "You're a bad boy," or you can say "You are a good boy who did something bad." What's the difference?
Well, if you tell him he's bad, then the next time he does something bad, it becomes impossible to rebuke him. What are you going to say to him? "Why did you do that bad thing?" He has a perfect defense: "I'm bad. I did it because I'm bad. Bad people can't be held responsible for their actions, can they? They're just bad." But if I'm a good person who did something bad, then it's a whole different ball game. I'm essentially a good person, but I have an external problem that I have to deal with. I can change, if I want to.
When a person goes into the High Holidays, it's really easy to feel a strong sense of despair. The odds are that you are not going to change into the perfect person over the next ten days. Some will even express it in Miltonian terms - "I'm going to burn anyway, I might as well have a good time before I go." As long as people see themselves as bad, there is no hope that they will ever change. But if instead we view our sins as something external, something that's not us, but rather a terrible burden that we are carrying through our lives, then we can think of ways to rid ourselves of them. To undo the wrong that we've done, to break unhealthy habits and to focus on how to become the people we really are.
That, I believe, is the secret of tashlich. On the first night of Rosh Hashana we don't just say "have a sweet year," we taste a sweet year. We eat challah and a sweet apple dripping with honey. We want a sensory experience of sweetness to help us focus. Likewise, on the first day of Rosh Hashana we go through the motions of casting off our sins.
We have to understand that our sins are not us, but a burden we carry. And we're tired of them. And just as we can cast off our sins symbolically, we can cast them off in reality - if we want to.
I'm often asked by people going into the High Holidays how they can possibly face Almighty G-d and tell Him they're really sorry and will never do it again. They know they're not ready yet to do everything perfectly. Frankly, I don't know too many people who are. So instead I suggest they try the following: At some point in the service, talk to G-d. Tell Him the truth. Say "G-d, You know me better than I know myself. I mean, after all, You created me. And You know that I fail more often than I succeed. But I can tell You this much, G-d. I'm a better person this year than I was last year. And if You give me the chance, I'll be a better person next year than I was this year."
I don't know too many Jews today, who are still going to Synagogue on the High Holidays, who can't say that to G-d. And if you do, then you have taken one step closer to becoming the person you really are, and unburdening yourself of the many mistakes you commit throughout your life.
May you and your family enjoy a happy and healthy New Year.