Casting Bread into the Water


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 forgiveness.

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 yourself—seriously.

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 Chagall painting—vanish.

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.