Raíanana Community Kollel
Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky
One of my fondest memories of Rosh Hashanah, growing up in suburban Long Island, was Tashlich. For those of you who are culturally challenged, Tashlich is a ceremony that takes place on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 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 cantorical performances, G-d would feel so bad for you, He would immediately forgive all your sins. So that was one of the best parts of Tashlich.
The other part 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. Since the Sages who invented this ceremony assume you are observant, your pockets are empty. If you happen to have your car keys there, ask your local Rabbi how to proceed. You then read from the book of the prophet Michah verses about teshuvah, repentance. Then, in solemn procession you return to synagogue for the afternoon service or drive home and watch the World Series, depending on local custom.
Now that I live in Jerusalem, Tashlich just hasnít been the same. You see, Jerusalem isnít blessed with many rivers. Although we have several wadis that serve as the runoff for untreated sewage, itís just not the same. So Jerusalamites 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. It loses some of the flavor, but as they say in the holy city, you canít have everything.
A number of years ago I was spending Rosh Hashanah in the yeshiva where I was teaching when 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. ďWhat exactly are we doing here, Rabbi?Ē he asked innocently. ďWe are casting our sins into the waterĒ I responded. He looked at me in disbelief. ďYouíre kidding, right? I mean, wonít they just bounce off the box?Ē That made me stop and together we stared at the box.
I guess when there is an actual river there itís a little easier to imagine youíre throwing your sins into the water. But does that make any more sense? How can we just throw away our sins? Donít we have to repent? Donít we have to resolve to change, to become better people? Does this mean I donít 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 teshuvah, to return to G-d. There are two terms in Judaism that are important for us to understand the proper approach to life. When a boy becomes thirteen and a girl twelve, they become Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzva , respectively. Literally that means becoming a son or a daughter of the commandments. But when a person violates a transgression, they become a Baal 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 even better 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 heís a bad boy, or you can say you are a good boy who did something bad. Whatís the difference? If you tell him heís bad then the next time he does something bad, what are you going to say? He has a perfect defense - Iím bad. Bad people canít be held responsible for their actions, theyíre just bad. But if Iím a good person who did something bad, then itís a whole different ballgame. 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, itís 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 - ďIím going to Hell anyway, I might as well have a good time before I goĒ. 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 thatís 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 weíve 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 Hashanah we donít 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 Hashanah 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 weíre tired of them. Just as we cast off our sins symbolically, we can cast them off in reality - if we want to.
Iím often asked by people going into the High Holidays how they can possibly face Almighty G-d and tell Him theyíre really sorry and will never do it again. They know theyíre not ready yet to do everything perfectly. Frankly, I donít 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 ďG-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. Iím a better person this year than I was last year. And if You give me the chance, Iíll be a better person next year than I was this yearĒ.
I donít know too many Jews today, who are still going to Synagogue on the High Holidays, who canít say that to G-d. And if you do, then you have taken one step closer to becoming the person you are and unburdening yourself of the many mistakes you commit throughout your life.
May you and your family enjoy a happy and a healthy New Year.
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