Casting Bread into the Water
By RACHEL KADISH
I spent my childhood in a vale of sin. Not metaphorically
(my parents and family are, as my grandmother would say, “solid citizens”) but
literally: Our house was in a slight valley, and, once a year, sin flowed
through. Or so it seemed to me when I heard the Orthodox shul up the road performed tashlich
into the stream that ran through my family’s back yard.
I was a child and my religion—such as it was—was literal. I’d been taught that tashlich was the casting of bread into
flowing water, a symbolic shedding of sins that could result from heartfelt
high-holiday repentance or t’shuva. While
I doubt any adult ever told me the breadcrumbs actually took on the caster’s
transgressions—and in fact my teachers might have been horrified by my
imaginative transubstantiation of breadcrumbs—to my seven-year-old self the
crumbs bobbing down the stream actually contained sins.
I took our Orthodox neighbors’ breadcrumbs seriously. And while I never saw the
sins gliding along in the stream, I imagined them: strange, personal, and
individual as thumbprints. Bobbing only yards from our back porch. Each year as
I made my weightiest Rosh Hashanah resolutions (clean my room, stop talking
back to my mother), I watched for the sins of my neighbors’ past year to float
through my backyard. Had I known the term, I might have said that the
sin-crumbs had half-lives. They never quite disappeared, but were diminished,
transferred, fodder for an endless moral food chain.
Where did the sins go? Did the ducks eat them?
Did people eat the ducks that ate the sins?
“A symbol is a means of arousing the brute soul”—so says S.Y. Agnon in Days of Awe. As such, tashlich’s symbolism magnifies the
gravity of t’shuva. Yet as I grew
older, symbols lost some of their earlier magic. The literal gesture seemed
quaint, and my brute soul was aroused less by symbolic breadcrumbs and more by
the yearly acts of t’shuva and
I know a married couple who use the high holidays as a time to do an extended evaluation
of their life goals and relationship. A woman I know re-reads her year’s
journals every September in preparation for the holidays. I look forward to the
phone calls every year with a few particularly close friends.
If there’s anything I’ve done to hurt you
this year, I’d like to talk about it. I’d like to apologize.
Most people are uncomfortable saying these words. They can seem—at least to
those who don’t live in deeply religious communities—fundamentally corny.
Confident, capable adults often approach an apology as awkwardly as though it
were their first kiss. As though the other party might spring back in horror,
or worse. The risk is real—we all have relationships whereby starting
conversation hazards getting an earful.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, a friend once tapped me on the way to his seat in
synagogue and whispered mid-stride, with a slight tone of mockery intimating
that we were all a bit too sophisticated for this hokey tradition—Hey, if there’s anything I’ve done this year
to hurt ya, ya know…Wink.
He didn’t stick around long enough to hear my reply. In fact there had been
something rather large that he’d done, and he knew it. Which was probably what
propelled him away from my seat before I’d opened my mouth. Drive-by t’shuva. I understand his nervousness,
though I regret to report it didn’t improve the friendship.
Yet forgiveness can be even more difficult
to utter than apology. In all my years of Jewish education and synagogue
attendance, I’ve heard a great deal about forgiveness without any discussion of
exactly how we’re to muster it. The dangers of failure seem obvious—Charles
Dickens spun entire novels out of characters obsessed with some slight they
could not forgive. Anger shapes us. If I don’t remember the wrongs done to me,
I’m a fool. But if I can’t forgive, I risk twisting myself into a sculpture of
anger—a tree irrevocably bent by persistent winds.
I forgive you. It sounds moralistic,
archaic. And worse: the words mean giving up the right to pique, to martyrdom,
to moral high ground. They mean plain and simple, that I have to get over
it—whatever it happens to be.
Going into the Yamim Noraim—the High Holy Days of Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur—I want to remind myself of what I’m trying to attain. Slow down. Say the words. Give your friend a
few moments to think. Don’t have the conversation in a crowded place. Don’t
walk away before you hear the reply. Let your friend know you take him—and
When I was a child I believed misdeeds never vanished. They floated down a
stream, were nipped by ducks, were consumed by hunters, and from there
dispersed in a vague and endless moral ecology. Conservation of sin ad
infinitum. I’d like to replace that image with the notion that if we do t’shuva right, the New Year truly is a fresh
start. I like to think the ducks that seize the breadcrumbs tossed into streams
this Tishrei (the Hebrew month in
which Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occur) could fly upward in a great
ear-splitting, sky-filling flock, and then—with the logic of a dream or a
Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where
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