New Year 5773
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New Year 5773

Casting away your sins at Tashlich - it's not just fish food

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. You can reach him at edmojace@gmail.com.

LOS ANGELES – Can ridding yourself of a year’s sins really be as simple as tossing a piece of bread into the water?

Basically that’s Tashlich, or “casting away,” a custom that many Jews practice each year at the seashore, lakeshore, stream, or even koi pond. (Remember, this is Los Angeles!) Simply find a place with flowing water and fish, and toss in a piece of bread – some people turn out their pockets instead – to cast off your sins symbolically.

Any place with fish will do, because their eyes are always wide open – metaphorically, it is like God’s eye. They are always watching.

But is it really that easy? The list of transgressions we will recite on Yom Kippur is a long and complicated alphabet of falling short, and each year, standing before the water, I wonder how can Tashlich possibly work.

I’m not alone.

The commentary in the Rabbinical Assembly’s Machzor Lev Shalem, which has a Tashlich service, points out that “Some rabbis opposed Tashlich because it makes the complex process of separating sin from our lives seem too facile.”

Too easy or not, for the growing number of Jews I see at the beach each year, Tashlich does seem to provide the crust of a new us.

The custom, which is not mentioned in the Talmud and whose origins most likely date to the Middle Ages, is related to a verse in the Book of Micah -that usually is recited during Tashlich:

“He will take us back in love;

He will cover up our iniquities,

You will hurl (v’tashlich) all our sins

Into the depths of the sea.”

Maybe Tashlich works because like our confession on Yom Kippur, it’s all so public. It’s one of those moments when we each get to see each other’s sins – or at least an expression of them – and discover that we’re not alone.

Standing side by side with other casters, we see the size and type of bread they toss and let the interpretations fly. Last year I received an email with some of those interpretations: pretzels for twisted sins, rice cakes for tasteless sins, a long loaf for laziness.

But in terms of size, does a bigger piece mean a bigger sinner? I suppose – perhaps it’s simply thrown by someone who likes to feed the fish.

Regardless, when the group is done tossing, the bread washes up on the beach: crusts, crumbs, crackers – while in terms of spirituality, I am still looking for the Wonder Bread.

And anyway, why do we use bread to represent our sins? Is it all those evil carbohydrates?

In another use of High Holy Days symbolism, on Yom Kippur we read about the scapegoat chosen to carry all the sins of Israel and then sent into the wilderness. At Tashlich if the bread is our goat, then for me that’s a lot to chew on.

I think that in Jewish tradition, bread is the thing our homes are not supposed to be without. It represents the everyday – the very thing we are trying to change.

At the new year, whether I am placing my errors on a goat or on rye, the issue is whether casting them away creates space for change.

Last year before the High Holy Days, tossing away two garbage bags full of column false starts, meanderings, and half-finished angry letters gave me room to move creatively. Would tossing away a piece of bread, psychologically speaking, provide room to move in other ways as well?

Looking for an answer, I emailed Chaya Lester, a Jerusalem psychotherapist and observant Jew who believes that Tashlich is the first step toward making a change. (Lester and her husband, Rabbi Hillel Lester, found the Shalev Center, a Jerusalem-based center for personal growth.)

Last year, Lester wrote a piece she called “The Psychology of Tashlich” on her jpost blog, in which she said that “Tashlich is like Jewish ritual medicine. It’s a classic psycho-spiritual technique for inner cleansing and health.”

According to Lester, with whom I spoke recently, before tossing your bread away you should ask, “What happened this year that should now have my attention?”

“The individual needs to be conscious of the personal issue that they are placing on the bread,” she said. “Movement happens when we access the power of our emotions.

“Write down the top 10 things that you want to cast off,” she said.

Lester, who sees Tashlich as “transformative,” suggested that after tossing away your bread, you should ask, “What should my action be? What is my next step?”

She and her family observe Tashlich at a lake in Jerusalem where the fish come up and take the tossed bread.

“It connects me to the Jonah story,” she said. The Book of Jonah is the haftarah we read each year on Yom Kippur afternoon. Some of its verses – “you cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea” -are also recited at Tashlich.

When we do Tashlich, we are “casting out the negative narrative, authoring a new story,” she said. There, she was referring to the High Holy Days’ sefer chayim, the book of life.

And that’s the wonder we all seek – with or without bread.

JTA Wire Service

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