Like most parents these days, I spend a lot of time wondering about the impact that this pandemic will have on our children and their development.
When we were bike riding on our block, a neighbor passed by. My preschooler started screaming “the yuckies are coming,” and flew down the street to escape him. We had given him the message that people are carriers of the yuckies, and in his mind, everyone outside of our bubble is yucky. I realized that I needed to reteach my kid some of things I had told him about the virus so he wouldn’t go around our neighborhood calling everyone “yucky.”
It turned out to be a great opportunity to teach him about mistakes, in this case mine, for how I communicated our reality to him. It also was a great opportunity to also teach about Elul and the work of teshuvah.
Without the regular touch points of our Jewish life, including preschool, Hebrew school, Shabbat services, Jewish camp, and so on, the obligation to teach our children about the Jewish calendar falls onto us as parents. In exploring Elul as a family, we are teaching, modeling, and absorbing for ourselves that it is possible to pivot and to find resiliency. We can pause and take hold of our experience, talk about it, recognize our missteps, and move forward with greater clarity, without the heaviness that we need to release. By engaging in the spiritual work of heshbon hanefesh — accounting of the soul — we strengthen ourselves because we do the work of letting go of the mistakes and of the parts of ourselves that hold us back.
With young children, I find that rituals capture deep truths and help bring abstract concepts into focus. One such ritual, tashlikh, originates from verse in Micah, 7:19 — God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.
In the 13th century, this line became the source for tashlikh, the ritual of going to a body of water, preferably with fish, and casting away your sins symbolically by throwing bread (or bread crumbs or organic material such as leaves or flower petals) into the water, and the bellies of the fish who swim in that water. There were some rabbis who worried that this ritual would replace the hard work of teshuva, of acknowledging mistakes and asking for forgiveness, of vowing not to commit the same mistakes in the future. Ultimately the ritual lasted, and it still is practiced today, usually on the first day of Rosh Hashanah or during the month of Tishrei.
Sharing our mistakes and the times when we missed the mark (like when my kids inadvertently refer to all people outside of our bubble as yucky) with our kids teaches them that parents make mistakes. This is emphasized with the tashlikh ritual, which can even be done with a baby pool, if that is the easiest body of water to visit right now. We can hold tightly onto our sins, the times we lost our tempers, allowed our kids to have too much screen time just so we could survive, the way we let our own anxieties lead to anger in unhealthy ways — and then we could release them into the river or ocean (or bathtub or kiddie pool) and let them go.
We need that release, and our kids need to see that release from us. Allow the tension, the stress of months of worry, of intense time with our families or alone, of the relationships that have been taxed, and release it all into the water, in our conversations asking for forgiveness, and for our families.
There is a prayer for casting that we like to use in our congregation:
“Here I am again, ready to let go. Help me to release myself from all the ways I have missed the mark. Help me to know that last year is over, washed away like crumbs in the current. Open my heart to new blessings and gratitude. Renew my soul as the water cleanses the earth. And together we say Amen.”
This year tashlikh can be a spiritual reset for our families, a tool to acknowledge the tension of the past several months and all of the mistakes that resulted from that stress. May we find avenues of release as we continue to navigate life within a pandemic that will add to our resiliency.
Ariel Russo, the rabbi of CSI Nyack, was educated by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and inspired by Camp Ramah. In her spare time she wrangles her kids into car seats and explores the lower Hudson region with her husband.