On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (or the second if the first is Shabbat), there is an ancient tradition, where one is supposed to go to a natural body of water like a stream or a pond and throw crumbs into the water while reciting several verses from Scripture. It is called Tashlikh, and one of the verses that is recited confers the name for this ceremony and its meaning: Micah 7:18-20 in which the prophet proclaims the uniqueness of God in being forgiving of the people Israel. He says, “You will again have compassion upon us, subduing our sins and casting (ve-tashlikh in Hebrew) all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
While the symbolism is obvious, it is interesting that the sea is the place where our sins can be cast away. The image is of the sins like the crumbs, sinking to the bottom of the sea never to be seen again. When one participates in this ceremony, it gives you a real feeling of the casting away of burdens that we carry from the year before. It is a cathartic experience that serves to refresh and renew us for the coming year. The sea then is the place where we dump our unwanted spiritual waste. Our ancestors felt that the sea was almost bottomless, and beyond the impact of human activity. This idea that the sea is so vast that there is nothing we can do to harm it even existed in scientific circles until very recently. An environmental scientist once related that high school science textbooks still reflected this idea as late as the early 1960’s.
We know now that the sea is not bottomless, and that we can have an adverse affect on it, especially those parts of it that are of the most value for the biosphere. We can no longer dump our waste without thought into the sea. So when we do Tashlikh, we should reflect that the sea in fact does contain the environmental sins of humanity and that we cannot escape them any more. While God may be as forgiving as a bottomless deep, the real oceans must be taken care of as any part of Creation. Let Tashlikh remind us that the sea is a part of Creation that touches all life and requires our restoration.
Written by : Rabbi Lawrence Troster
Director, Fellowship Program GreenFaith