Tuesday, August 17, 2010


In the latest issue of the magazine Reform Judaism there is an essay written by Russ Levine, a student at San Francisco State University, which had me laughing all the way through. I wish I could reprint his whole article, but at the bottom of this blog I’ll give you the link to read it.

Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the New Jewish year, starts the High Holidays and they are culminated by Yom Kippur, ten days later. Yom Kippur literally means "Day of Atonement" in Hebrew and is characterized by fasting and prayer for the atonement of sins. Observant Jews regard it as the most important and solemn day on the religious calendar.

Tashlik (תשליך) is a ritual that many Jews observe during Rosh Hashanah. "Tashlik" (sometimes written Tashlich) means "casting off" in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. In this way the participant hopes to start the New Year with a clean slate.

The essay written by this young California man chronicles his determination to get rid of his bad habits. He decided to go to Ocean Beach and “purge his sins in the Pacific.” He set out, but needed to pick up some bread on the way. “With that in mind, I entered the Safeway across the street and bought a roll. Fifty-nine cents for a clean slate – what a religion!” Arriving at the beach, he perceives the ocean waves as “looking like a front of horse-drawn chariots” and he envisions himself “holding my roll like David held his rock” in the face of Goliath. But he didn’t count on the sea gulls….

Levine does such a good job with his subject, and ends up after all the laughter with a message that speaks of the value of ritual, seeing it not as a contrived solution but as a challenge to do better.

I have always been interested in ritual. In fact, I have kind of a love-hate relationship with it. I left Job’s daughters about six months after I joined because I couldn’t stand the ritual. As an adult I joined the Alamitos Friends Church because they did not use any religious rituals (communion, foot washing, baptism, etc.) in their services. This church believed that if you lived your life in constant communion with God, you had no need for the ritual of Communion. The emphasis was on reality, not ritual. It was felt that too many people accepted the ritual as the reality and never went any further in their Christian walk. It made such sense to me at the time. And never having belonged to a “liturgical” church, I didn’t miss the feeling of familiarity that ritual gives its adherents.

But for some reason this ritual of Tashlik has fascinated me, perhaps because it is for me a new idea. Because Jerry and I are not active in any religious organization, I was unaware of this ritual until a few years ago, when a group of San Bernardino Jews used the little bridge built over a stream that flows around the VA Hospital in Loma Linda to stand on while they contemplated their sins and threw their bread crumbs into the stream. The newspaper picked up the event, which is where I learned about it.

I asked Jerry this year if we could find a Tashlik ritual at one of the local synagogues and attend. According to the ritual, the water must be “flowing” water, not standing water, and I don’t know where any Synagogue around here would find flowing water. I think I’d like to hold out for a more “dramatic” expression of Tashlik than, say, turning on a water faucet and tossing the crumbs down the garbage disposal. (I say that because at my first seder many years ago, held at Jerry’s temple, I was horrified to hear the Rabbi say to the participants “We’ll skip that part because it takes too much time” and later, ‘We’ll just pretend that…”) So I want a gushing stream, maybe some koi and a few sea-gulls if any should come this far inland. I’ll bring one of my favorite Costco Petit-Rolls and take care of a few of my many failings, remembering all the time that I want the long-term reality, not just the short-term ritual.

Anyway, the High Holidays are coming and we best get prepared. Russ Levine’s “Into the Deep” was a great way of setting off on the right foot!

You can read it for yourself at http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1627

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