Tashlich: A Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) ritual where one recites a prayer at a body of water with the intent of casting off one’s sins (along with any negative heavenly judgment weighing on the soul) into the flowing cleansing depths, and to begin the new year’s spiritual journey with an unburdened fresh, clean slate.
We weren’t supposed to be at the shore at that moment. We hadn’t planned on being there. But there were — our legs feeling somewhat heavy and regretting our error in judgment that brought us there —rhythmically swaying in prayer at the riverside as we recited the tashlich from our small prayer books.
This happened on Rosh Hashana some seven years ago. We had been out — two friends and I — having been sent on a mission from yeshiva (rabbinical school). In advance of the holiday, the yeshiva staff had arranged with the many local assisted-living homes, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals for students to come over and lead a small New Year’s service/celebration. We were mobilized, split into small groups of two or three students, and assigned to the various locations; each at the predesignated time. We would sing the traditional songs, share apples dipped in honey (a New Year’s custom), and blow the Shofar (the Biblical horn-instrument) — the essence of the Rosh Hashanah service at synagogue, now brought to those unable to attend. As we don’t use a car on the holiday — similar to the Shabbos — we were to walk to our specified locations. I was grouped with two friends and we were assigned the services at a pair of senior homes.
We set out in the afternoon after the traditional (lengthy) morning prayers and the festive lunch in the dining hall. We carried with us a couple of bags with small prayer books, a shofar, apples, a miniature jar of honey, and water bottles to hydrate through our trek.
Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the first senior home. After introducing ourselves to the receptionist, the word was spread and the Jewish residents assembled excitedly in the public events room. We set the tone, singing and clapping to a well-known Jewish tune and the residents eagerly joined in. We blew the shofar, distributed the apples, shared our greetings and blessings with all the participants, and returned to the road.
The second home had given the coordinators the go-ahead for us to come and lead the service at any time throughout the day, so we weren’t in a particular rush. Our plan at that point was to recite the tashlich at a small stream which we would pass on our way back to yeshiva after the service; however, as we rounded a corner we saw a beautiful lake up ahead, and it seemed, well, appealing… We quickly discussed our options and seemed to agree that we should carry on in the direction of the lake. We might as well already perform the tashlich, and the shore seemed magnificent. (We also factored in that the other stream was interlinked with the city’s sewage and didn’t smell great.) Seeing the waters directly ahead, we estimated it would take us ten minutes to reach the shore.
We greatly miscalculated. City block after city block seemed to get us no closer to the water. Although we were in high spirits all day, this “extra” and unexpected time and distance was quite irritating at the time. We were headed entirely out of the way and, even after we would get to the shore, every step would have to be backtracked. After an exasperating half-hour — which means an hour added to our total mission — we reached the waterfront and pulled out our prayerbooks.
The shore at which we arrived was directly beside a children’s park. We settled in our positions and began reciting the prayer, when a woman — perhaps in her late sixties — approached us from the park with a small boy in tow.
“Are you reciting the tashlich?” she asked.
“Shanah Tova! Me too!” she exclaimed, beaming brightly.
“My name is Emily and this is my grandson Joshua. I always go to services on Rosh Hashana, but my daughter has asked me to babysit today and I couldn’t miss the chance to spend time with my wonderful grandson,” she related, as she caressed Josh’s hair affectionately.
“I felt bad missing services so I came to this park by the lake to be able to recite my own tashlich as I gaze out on these waters. Are you Rabbis?”
(We did look the part, I may add, dressed up in our finest Rosh Hashanah attire.)
“Not really, but studying toward it… We do have a shofar with us. Would you like to hear it?”
“I would love that!”
Her eyes lit up.
“I don’t think Josh has ever been at services. Are you ready to hear the shofar, Joshua?”
He smiled, a bit unsure, as he clung to his grandma’s leg. A young child; probably only five years of age.
Well, blow the shofar we did, as tears welled up in Emily’s eyes and Josh heard the shofar for the first time in his young life. We wished each other the best of greetings, parted, and turned around on this extra path we had taken, now back toward the second senior home.
The road passed much quicker though, probably due to the wave of thoughts that flooded my mind. I had assumed we made a mistake; prolonging an already long trip. But then there was this woman, who was facing G-d in prayer. I don’t think she was reciting the traditional prayers per se; she was reciting a tashlich from her heart. She had felt something on that day that she wanted to be a part of — that she wanted her Joshua to be part of too. And G-d heard her. He sent her a couple of wandering students; and the shofar — the power of the synagogue, the mitzvah and tradition which dates back to Moses — well, it came to her. The extra walking? It wasn’t a mistake at all.
I don’t know what she prayed that day as she gazed out onto the gentle waves, but I believe I felt her prayer. It was in her excitement as she approached us, and it was in her emotion as she did the mitzvah. And for me, it was in my very being at that lakefront, at that particular moment. And it’s my inspiration as I’ll open the prayer book again this Rosh Hashanah.
This year may G-d answer all of our prayers — and I bless us all that our prayers truly come from within the heart; driven by that yearning soul.