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 “baggage” weighing on one’s heart) into the flowing cleansing depths, and to begin the new year’s spiritual journey with an unburdened fresh, clean slate.
It sure didn’t seem that far away. We could clearly see the flowing waters tumbling onto the rocky shore up ahead. I estimated that — walking — it would take us a modest ten minutes to reach the lake. “Yeah, let’s do it,” I resolved, and my two friends and I headed in the direction of the water. Much to our dismay, however, although the lake was directly ahead of us, it still took a half-hour to arrive at the shore as the city blocks seemed to stretch on without end. At long last, once situated on the rocks overlooking the lake, we opened the small prayer books that we had taken along on our trek and began reciting the tashlich. Unbeknownst to us, we weren’t the only ones praying at that shore.
It was Rosh Hashanah. In the spirit of sharing, the senior students at our yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish school) had arranged with the many local assisted-living centers and similar venues for some yeshiva boys to come over and lead a small New Year’s service/celebration. We were all then tasked and assigned to the various locations and were to head over during the day. 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 mission. I was grouped with two friends and we were assigned the services at a pair of elderly homes.
The day began with the traditional (long) holiday prayers, followed by a festive meal at yeshiva’s dining hall. We then took our small prayer books, a shofar, apples and a miniature jar of honey, and set out to complete our task. (The mission’s coordinators also had us kindly provided with bottled water on our way out the door, as for some there was a substantial walk ahead.)
Forty-five minutes later we arrived at Elderly Home A. Upon entering, 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 toward Elderly Home B.
We turned a corner and saw a major lake directly ahead of us, which brings us back to that on-the-fly decision-making of which I opened this story. We had the option of continuing our route as planned, as we had the rest of the day to perform the tashlich at any body of water. In addition, there was a small stream which we would cross on our way back toward yeshiva, and originally we had considered stopping and praying at that later point. Upon seeing the lake, though, we reassessed our options as the stream in question was interlinked with the city’s sewer system and had a reeking stench to show for it; not exactly ideal for religious reflection and introversion. And here we chanced upon an alternative: to royally perform the mitzvah at this vast beautiful lake (with a fresher scent to boot). Which is when I made the call we all regretted as the path to the lake stretched beyond our initial expectations. (Remember, a half-hour each way ultimately adds an hour to our journey.)
She was facing G-d in prayer. She had felt something on that day that she wanted to be a part of.
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 stroked 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 on 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 half-hour path we had taken, now back toward Elderly Home B.
This year may our prayers truly come from within the heart.
The road passed much quicker though, probably due to the wave of thoughts that flooded my mind. I had assumed I 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.
(Rosh Hashanah will be celebrated in 2019 from the evening of September 29, until the evening of October 1.)