Throwing it all Away
By: Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz, The Observant Jew
On Rosh HaShana, there is an ancient custom to go to a body of water and recite various pesukim as we “cast off our sins.” At the end of Micha, the Navi speaks of HaShem casting our sins into the depths of the sea (7:19.) People are often careful to go to a place that has fish living in it, for various reasons.
The origins of the custom are as murky as some of the places people practice it, but it is a cleansing ritual and people tend to connect with it, though the Vilna Gaon was suspicious of it and didn’t practice it. What exactly it effects and how is not my focus today though.
Just as Pesach has become a time of “Spring Cleaning” having nothing to do with the Yom Tov itself, Tashlich has become, for many, a time to feed the fish and ducks our old challa or bagels which has no religious significance. Besides for the fact that doing it on Yom Tov may cause halachic problems since these animals are not your pets or possessions, even feeding them during the week can be problematic.
First of all, it can be against the law. Many municipalities have laws against feeding the birds in parks, yet often people seem to overlook these rules in favor of carrying out this custom, which many poskim do not even consider part of the minhag of Tashlich. By insisting on breaking the law to drop a few crumbs, we’re throwing away the benefit of the whole ceremony by acquiring the terrible sin of Chillul HaShem. It appears to onlookers that Jews don’t value laws and can choose to separate themselves from a community, thinking they are above the law. (A great source of anti-Semitism, by the way.)
Some people are even more machmir on Tashlich. They insist on continuing to symbolically throw their sins away by tossing used cans, wrappers, and potato chip bags on the ground during their Chol haMoed trips. The same concept of losing more than you gain applies, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.
A second reason not to feed the ducks or fish is that too much food may harm the animals, leading to tzar baalei chaim. Here’s a sin you figured you’d never transgress and now you’ve got a way to do it while trying to be nice!
Now let’s analyze this a little more. What do we hope to achieve by “casting off our sins” and what’s the connection to water? Why does the Navi ask HaShem to cast our sins to the depths of the sea instead of burning them in a fire? Perhaps we don’t want the sins to “vanish.”
The Gemara talks about throwing things into the sea to prevent a person from benefitting from them. At the bottom of the water, a coin will remain intact but unused. Perhaps the prophet wants the sins to be cast to the depths of the sea where they won’t tempt people to repeat them. In essence, we’re not asking for the sins to be “swallowed up” because the Yetzer Hara will always find ways to go after people. Rather, we’re asking that the sins and opportunities for sin be taken out of our range so we can’t sin again.
There’s another point as well. Imagine you were on a boat and dropped your wallet or camera into the water. It’s gone. You’re not getting it back but every time you pass that place you will think about what happened and what you lost. It happened with me in Florida when a baseball cap from Montana blew off my head and into the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes I will still look out to sea and comment, “Somewhere out there is my cap.”
When we go to a body of water, which represents permanence in halacha (they are used as landmarks for Gitin, for example) and we ritually throw away our sins, we don’t expect them to be “gone.” Rather, we desire that whenever we pass that place, we remember that hiding in the depths are the things that caused us to be unfaithful to HaShem. There, beneath the waves, are waiting the mistakes and errors that we do not wish to repeat. They remain there as a warning to ourselves.
The Registrar in my Yeshiva used to have a sign in his office: “The best way to break a bad habit is to drop it.” When we do Tashlich, it’s not the fish eating the crumbs that symbolizes the sins vanishing. Instead, the symbolism of the act of casting our sins to the depths where we won’t be able to reach them again refers back to our decision not to repeat our mistakes.
So, if we’re looking for ways to separate ourselves from sin, let’s make sure that we watch out for the hidden Evil Inclination, who will stoop to anything to get us to sin – even disguising it as a mitzvah. Don’t throw it all away by letting him fool you.
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