A Tashlich for the World
The last time I did Tashlich, I was ten years old. My best friend and I had walked to the man-made lake next to her house with a bag of stale bread and heart full of guilt. We quietly sat on the dock of the lake and threw crumbs into the water, casting away sins that only ten year olds can make. I imagine they must have been about hitting my younger brother, or gossiping about another fourth grader. Perhaps they were about a time I had yelled at my mom, or ignored my dad.
Now, like most twenty-one year olds, I have no doubt committed sins worse than talking back to my mother. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, I take time to reflect on the things I’ve done wrong, and the ways I’ve hurt others. And yet, I have not done Tashlich in over a decade. What is the ritual significance of Tashlich, and am I missing it in my New Year reflections?
When I spoke to several of my friends about Tashlich, only one of them had continued to do the ritual with their families. The rest, like me: participating in the reflection, without the ritual. But this year, I can’t help but wonder if a reflection is as meaningful without the ritual behind it. Would Shabbat actually be a day of rest, different from the weekdays, if we did not light candles, sing songs, or do Kiddush? Can an internal reflection of wrongdoings be enhanced with an external, tangible ritual?
As I reflect on the past year, I realize that the act of ritual is often missing from my life, and the lives of those around me. Aside from the general fear and anxiety of living through a pandemic, there has also been the particular aspect of monotony and boredom as I am isolated from others and attempt to do work, school, and social activities from the distance of a computer screen. It can feel as though days blur together, indistinguishable from the next. As we enter our second Rosh Hashanah in a pandemic, I wonder if the world collectively is also missing a ritual of purity, renewal, and reflection— one similar to Tashlich. How else can we acknowledge and give meaning to the struggles and difficulties we all face? What better way than a ritual that gives meaning and purpose to inedible, stale breadcrumbs?
Tashlich, which translates to “casting off”, is a spiritual ritual performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. During the ceremony, bread crumbs are thrown into a natural body of water (likely to be eaten by fish or ducks), symbolically casting away sins of the past year.
“I am a Jew who sometimes feels like I have one foot in the Jewish bubble and the other in the non-Jewish world.”
I am a Jew who sometimes feels like I have one foot in the Jewish bubble and the other in the non-Jewish world. Navigating my personal identity can be difficult, especially when identity is non-tangible and hard to grasp. Since I’ve left the Jewish community in Los Angeles to go to university in Santa Cruz, my dissonance regarding my identity and in ritual has intensified.
I’ve kept kosher for most of my life, but haven’t in the last couple years. Growing up in an Orthodox household, I’ve kept Shabbat in the past, but rarely do now. I fasted last Yom Kippur, but since it was during a height of the pandemic, could not attend services, and was not surrounded by anyone who recalled or observed the holiday. I do host Shabbat dinners sometimes, but when I stumble over the hand-washing or candle-lighting prayer because I don’t do it on a weekly basis anymore, I feel like an imposter. I’ve realized that often, the physical ritual is the most significant way I feel connected to my identity — when I stand for Kiddush, when I taste challah, smell Havdalah spices, listen to the sound of Hebrew prayer. I’ve realized that if I neglect the ritual, I neglect what continues to bind me to my Jewish self.
I think this year on Rosh Hashanah, I will go to the ocean, stale bread in hand, and cast away my wrongdoings of the past year. I’m not expecting anything from the ritual of Tashlich; perhaps I will walk away feeling the exact dissonance as I did before doing it. Maybe I will be extremely moved, and inspired to keep more Jewish traditions. Regardless of how it affects my perception of my identity, or of tradition, I know I will walk away lighter, empty handed, and ready to begin the year anew.