By Terry Wunder, Senior Program Director

Tashlich, the Jewish ritual of throwing one’s sins away by tossing bread into the ocean, has all the elements of what may seem like an intimidating, old-world Jewish practice: a Hebrew title, a bunch of activities with bread and water, a variety of prayers, etc..  But, in fact, tashlich has very simple, powerful concepts, with great relevance to modern young adult life.

This article will guide you in seeing how this ancient ritual is not only still relevant, but also a tangible, compelling way to self-reflect and set yourself and your community members up for success in the new year. Plus, it’s an MHWOW program ready to go – just follow the blue text.

There are essentially three parts to Tashlich:

  • The Path: What is the path to leading your best life and being your best self?
  • The Misfire: What are the things that are pulling you away from doing that?
  • The Return: How can I recognize those struggles and deal with or move past them so that I can live my best life?

Who doesn’t want to be their best self? And live their best life?

The Path

How old is tashlich?

Tashlich is old, really old. Tashlich was practiced as early as the 13th century, but potentially long before that, and it’s based on the last verses of the book of Micah (7:18-20).

Is tashlich a required part of the high holy days by Jewish law? No!

There’s nothing in halacha that requires you to do tashlich. It’s customary, but not required.  And although tashlich has a lot of traditions, none of them are actually required to DO tashlich. Bread? Not necessary. It’s a glued-free holiday! Water? Not needed. Specific prayers? Nah. These traditions are vehicles for understanding the lessons of the holiday.

The root of the word “halacha” itself is important to understanding the purpose of tashlich. Many people understand halacha to mean “Jewish law”, but it’s root, holech, actually means “walk”. Halacha, at its core, is about how to walk the path of living Jewishly and vis a vis, how to live your best life and be your best self.

Tashlich is the process of reflecting on the past year and seeing how you want to enter into the new year.

MHWOW Program PART 1:

  • Read the above text (The Path).
  • My Year: The Board Game
    • Give THIS double-sided board game template printout to each participant. One side should be labeled 5778 and the other 5779. On 5778, have participants write three types of things:
      • 1. At “Finish” have the participants write some goals they had for the past year (e.g., eat more meat, get a new job, watch every Meryl Streep movie)
      • 2. In each box write the timeline of major and minor life events throughout their year from start (Rosh Hashanah 2017) through now (e.g., moved cities, tried kombucha, registered to vote)

Self reflection and discussion questions:

  • Do you set goals for yourself each year (Hebrew or Gregorian)?
  • If so, was it hard to remember what your goals were from last year?
  • What kinds of life events did you list? What stood out as the most important?

The Misfire

There is a lot of talk of sin in the High Holidays. You must repent! Admit! Atone! But what is a sin, actually? Often we think of sins as feelings executed through action because of some kind of weakness (e.g. stress-eating, drinking too much, rudeness).

The Hebrew word often associated with sin is cheit, which means “to miss” as in to loose an arrow and miss the target. Sin, at it’s root, is the thing (attitudes, behaviors) that pull you off your desired path. 

For example, is gambling a sin? There is no explicit law against gambling in Judaism. In practicum, I can go out and responsibly play poker at a casino for a few hours and walk away from the table without it affecting my life (or my finances). Some folks cannot. Some people can’t sit at a poker table and not bet themselves into ruin. Are we both sinning? Is the action of gambling itself a sin? Or is it a sin because the consequence of the action of gambling is pulling the person away from their responsibilities?

What I’m trying to say is that not all actions are sins for everyone. Every person takes aim and misfires sometimes. For some it’s easier to misfire by doing certain behaviors versus others. The actions and behaviors taking me off of my path may be a totally okay things for someone else to do – and vice versa.

MHWOW Program PART 2:

  • Read the above text (The Misfire) and discuss:
    • What are sins, to you?
    • Is an action a sin? Or is it only an action with a negative consequence?
    • What about an action that has consequences for other people?
  • My Year: The Board Game
    • On the outside area of the path, write all the ways that you were distracted from your goals because of your own actions, attitudes, and behaviors
  • Discuss:
    • What actions, attitudes, and behaviors are distracting you and taking you away from being your best self?
    • What practical steps can you take to course correct?
    • What actions/behaviors can you do to set yourself up for success and a smaller chance of misfiring?

The Return

The Jewish tradition I grew up in told me that I should be seeking t’shuvah, repentance, during this time of year and God will forgive me.

As we did before, if we look at the root of t’shuvah, we learn that it means, “to return” — for us in this example, towards leading our best life, Jewish life, or being our best selves.  Really what we’re talking about here is how to recognize how we’ve misfired, and how we can forgive ourselves for that and return to being on a good path.

So, does this mean you can go out and do a bunch of terrible things and it doesn’t matter?

My friend and educational collaborator on this article, Rabbi Daniel Sher, Youth and Family Rabbinic Fellow at Kehillat Israel, in Los Angeles says, “Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the responsibility for hurting someone, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person [including yourself] without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”

Forgiveness is hard. There is a reason why you feel a “weight off your shoulders” when someone forgives you, or you forgive yourself.

Rabbi Sher again, “When you’re buried, you can’t stand up.”

Forgive yourself.

God said it’s cool.

מי־אל כמוך נשא עון ועבר על־פשע לשארית נחלתו לא־החזיק לעד אפו כי־חפץ חסד הוא

Who is a God like You, Forgiving iniquity And remitting transgression; Who has not maintained His wrath forever Against the remnant of His own people, Because He loves graciousness!

ישוב ירחמנו יכבש עונתינו ותשליך במצלות ים כל־חטאותם

He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins Into the depths of the sea.

(The sea, see? That’s where the bread thing came from!)

This person also agrees:

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

And this human:

“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”  

― Maya Angelou

MHWOW Program PART 3:

  • Read the above text (The Return) and discuss:
    • How do you get back on track?
    • Who is keeping you accountable besides yourself?
    • What actions can you take to ensure that you’re starting the new year off with the things you need in place to be successful?
  • My Year: The Board Game
    • On the 5780 game board:
      • Write actions, attitudes, and behaviors that you can use to keep you on your path in 5780
    • Think about what goals you want to set for 5780. Some of those goals may be continuations of 5779 goals and some may be new. Write them in the Finish space.