At the period of the High Holydays we think of ways that we can move on in our lives. Through the process of teshuvah/ repentance, we consciously and intentionally try to let go of bad habits or bad relationships, or acts of unkindness that undermine the good within us. Judaism not only recognises the idea of ‘letting go’, it also has a tradition associated with this letting go, it is the custom known as Tashlich.
The word tashlich is derived from the Hebrew meaning ‘you shall cast away.’ This venerable ritual is significant because it is shared by all the branches of Judaism throughout the world. Further, it connects Jews to one another in an historical timeline that dates back hundreds of years, at least to the Middle Ages. Some people see a connection with an event that took place about 2500 years ago when the prophet Nehemiah described a Rosh Hashanah event with these words: All the Jews gathered as one in the street that is in front of the gate of water (Nehemiah 8:1). The term tashlich is derived from Micah 7:9, ‘[God] you shall cast all their sins into the depths of the seas.’
Traditionally tashlich is performed on Rosh Hashanah afternoon where one goes to a body of moving water and symbolically casts away their wrongdoing. Often people take breadcrumbs or birdseed and toss it into the water. This idea may be linked to the biblical statement, ‘cast bread upon the waters’ (Ecclesiastes 11:1). We hope that our evil inclinations (symbolised by the bread or birdseed) will be carried away by the water’s quiet roll and ripple, flowing from us, never again to return. We pray that this sincerely felt symbolic act might lead to receiving Divine forgiveness.
Judaism does not view people as inherently evil. Rather it sees them as individuals who have both good and evil inclinations, either of which may be supported or cast away. In this holy period that highlights self-reflection, tashlich is an activity where we can physically act out our commitment to cast away any wrongdoing that may lurk within us. Traditionally, we think of this as the wrong that is rooted in the bad decisions that bring dishonour to the soul.
It would be wonderful if misguided behaviour and misfortune could, in fact, be cast away as easily as we cast bread upon the waters. Unfortunately, as we all know, it is not that easy. It takes ongoing, sustained effort to cast away evil for all time. Even then it may not be possible to cast away the evil that is inherent in adversity. With hard work, however, it may be possible for us to cast away the spiritual crises that often accompany these evils.
In this coming year, may we find the inner strength to cast out from our lives those acts that we regret, and likewise the suffering that is part of our spiritual crises. May we, through our efforts, know a spiritual cleansing. May the waters of life create connections to healing for you and for those you love.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu!
May you be inscribed for a good year.
Rabbi David J. Zucker PhD