The word "Tashlich" means "You will cast away." The essence of Tashlich as most of us know it is that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we go to a running body of water such as a sea, river, stream, lake or pond, preferably one that has fish, and we recite verses, mostly from the psalms. In the past when no such body of water was available, some rabbis were known to do Tashlich next to a well, even a dried up one, or, even next to a bucket of water. When we finish the verses, the custom is to toss bits of bread into the water and shake out the corners of our clothes. I remember one Rosh Hashanah when I was sick, my older brother had me toss bits of Wonder Bread down the toilet. The breadcrumbs are supposed to represent our 'sins' but more on that later.
There are various reasons given for saying Tashlich in a body of water that has fish. Some say that since fish have no eyelids, their eyes are constantly open, symbolizing God's protective watch over us. On the other hand, we know people who even when they are awake seem to be moving through life with their eyes closed – so perhaps the open-eyed fish is a kind of wake-up call to our own lives.
Fish are said to bear many offspring which is meant to symbolize our hope to be fruitful and multiply like fish.
Scholars have offered different ideas as to the basis for the practice. Some cite biblical references to the story of the Akeda which we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: A midrash tells us that when Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac, Satan appeared in the form of a river in order to prevent Abraham from obeying God (Frankly, I might have been on Satan's side on this issue) Nonetheless, Abraham entered the river and when the waters reached his neck, he cried out, "Save me, for the waters have reached my soul," whereupon Satan disappeared. And so, we go to the waters to commemorate Abraham's journey.
Some refer to verses from (Micah) 7:18-20, which are added onto the book of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur in which it says “mi-el kamocha” who is a God like you who "forgives sins, overlooks transgressions and casts them into the depths of the sea."
In our Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah the same word for 'cast out' is used in the story of Hagar who is 'cast out' into the desert and in the Yom Kippur reading of Jonah, who is “cast out” into the depths of the sea. From that moment on the course of their lives were changed.
There is a good chance however that the custom derived from earlier pagan religions, from the idea that evil spirits dwell in streams, wells and springs, and the that best way to placate them is to offer them gifts so that they will do no harm. There was also the the idea behind Tashlich that objects or living things such as fish could carry away to the depths of the sea all the worries that beset us.
In Medieval times in Babylonia there was a form of Tashlich, that was combined with a form of Kaporos, (that's where you swing a rooster over your head three times before slaughtering it and feeding it to the poor) with the idea that the rooster acts as a substitute for humans and can take on your misdeeds.) The way they performed Tashlich in Babylonia was to weave baskets out of palm leaves, fill them with soil and earth, and plant beans in the baskets a couple of weeks before the new year.
On the day before Rosh Hashanah the basket was waved about the head seven times, and then the basket, symbolizing all that we want to be rid of in ourselves, was then thrown into the river.
Perhaps small shoots of beans were less expensive, less cruel, yet still something living.
The first actual written reference that we have to the practice itself comes in a 14th century book called The Book of Customs by the German Rabbi known as the Maharil in which he gives strict orders that no crumbs of bread should be thrown to fish when Jews go to the stream on Rosh Hashanah. So clearly he was citing a tradition already familiar to the Jews of that time.
In the late middle ages and through the renaissance some communities leaders would suggest finding water not near their communities so that non-Jews in the area wouldn't accuse the Jews of poisoning the waters or be accused of conducting witchcraft when they are seen mumbling words which might be curses.
Other rabbis have protested against the custom of tossing breadcrumbs and shaking out pockets as a desecration of the holiday in which we are not supposed to be carrying anything.
So some follow the custom of simply waving the bottom of their jackets (near the front, where the pockets are) symbolically, but without actually emptying them out.
The Jews of Kurdistan took the Tashlich custom one step further. They jumped into a body of water to cleanse themselves. Depending on when the holiday falls it can get pretty cold in those areas of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, where Kurdish Jews were found, so this was no small commitment.
In the 18th century, modern Jews who considered themselves enlightened sought to have the Galician government ban Tashlich entirely. They declared that the practice was anachronistic, even primitive, and would cause Jews to be mocked by the Christian world.
During periods when anti-Semitism was rampant, rabbinical authorities advised their congregants to perform Tashlich secretly or with discretion.
In the 19th century, Rabbi Epstein, author of the Aruch Hashulchan, (which was a rewriting of the shulchan aruch- the code of laws) forbade the practice. One of the reasons he gives is that it was considered immodest for the genders to meet at the water's edge. His views were not shared by most of his contemporaries.
In the 20th century, Professor Lauterbach, a rabbinic scholar who taught at Hebrew Union College, wrote that most Jews never took the Tashlich ritual seriously since it had its roots in pagan practice. So until just recently the Reform movement hadn't practiced Tashlich.
In our own time the custom is once again widespread. Perhaps after a day of praying indoors the spirituality and holiness of the day is enhanced by being in nature. And for many communities Tashlich becomes one of the last major outdoor social occasions of the summer.
So what are these sins, these 'chataim' that are being tossed into the sea?
Actually, the word 'chet,' doesn't mean sin. Its an archery term that translates as 'missing the mark,' suggesting something far less pernicious than a sin.
So what is the mark? I would suggest that the true mark for each and every one of us is simply to live up to our fullest potential – what Abraham Maslow called self realization- to being the best version of ourselves as we can possibly be. But there is so much that gets us off course; as they say, life gets in the way; jobs, money, relationships, all of which can be both obstacles and opportunities. There is no road map, no GPS to guide us to our fullest selves. There's only our intentions, and its easy to get thrown off course, to miss our mark.
So Tashlich is a good time to reevaluate: What path have I been on this past year? Does it express who I am or do I need a course correction? In what ways am I still missing my mark? What's keeping me from being my own best self?
One of the things I've discovered over the years is that I am my own harshest critic (Anybody else feel that?). When I mess up - whether I missed a chance to help someone out, got road rage, was in an unhealthy relationship, sang a wrong note in public, or simply wasted my time - I obsess about it.
The longer we beat ourselves up over the past, the longer it takes to move on into our future.
This past year my computer died. I went to the Apple store and bought a new computer and two weeks later that one died too.
“Sorry,” the technician said this time we didn't transfer all of your material, some of the old files had problems and may have caused the new computer to die.
All the old e-mails, journal entries, notes on Torah portions, ideas for song lyrics that I'd saved over ten years, were gone. Truth be told I hadn't looked at any of that stuff in close to .. well, ten years. But I did have a back-up disk, so although it wasn't going to be easy to access the information it was good enough to know that the information was stored somewhere if I needed it.
You get where I'm going with this? We don't need to lose anything.
The word Tashlich from the verb 'lishloach' means to send out, to cast off. But it doesn't mean to throw away. Our memories, feelings, and experiences are stored somewhere in our minds and bodies. But perhaps every experience you have had doesn't need to be front and center in your lives anymore. What can we let go of? Do we have old patterns of reacting that no longer serve us well, that get in the way of how we act in the present? Do the painful moments of our past keep us from our future?
Perhaps as part of our community ritual today, as we do our casting off, you might find a back-up person with whom you can share some of your most troubling memories and feelings and thus lighten your own load.
Can we let go of our regrets?
In one of my favorite novels of the year: Incredibly Close and Extremely Loud by Jonathan Safran Foer he writes:
I think about all the things I've done, and all the things I didn't do. “The mistakes are dead to me but I can't take back the things I never did.”
Remember, in today's Torah portion we also read the story of Sarah giving birth in old-age. You don't have to take that literally to find meaning in this story. You can take it as a metaphor for yourselves, that something new, is always possible at any time, anywhere.
Our burdens don't have to define us. Our past is not our future. Our story isn't fully written. When we shift the perspective we have on our lives and on our personal history, we have the chance to change how we might act in the future.
Tashlich is about transformation. Look at the stories of Hagar and of Jonah. Hagar, cast out into the desert, at the depths of her of despair, receives and accepts the prophecy that she will raise Ishmael to become the progenitor of a great nation. Jonah cast into the sea, overcomes his resistance to God's call and goes to save the inhabitants Nineveh from destruction.
May you find renewed energy to live your lives as fully as you can May you be the best you, you can possibly be.
I'd like to offer you this song that I wrote for the New Year:
Things get broken things get renewed
Everyday dies something is born our lives are woven from the tattered and torn
Things get broken...
Nights are for dreaming