the sins that won’t float away
that there seagull is eating my sin. more of a late-afternoon goute (that’s french for a taste when tummies are growling, a ways after lunch, not long before dinner). and if i were a beach-combing bird, i too, might dive for a nibble of honeycake, albeit spiced by the devil.
but, oh, dear mr. gull, that crumb was not meant for a snack; it was my sin and i’d tossed it away.
that, friends, is yet another one of the beauties of being the mama in a house where much of the world is seen through a lens that is jewish.
i now know from tashlikh.
of all the poetry i find in things jewish–from the lighting of friday night candles to bring on the sabbath bride, to the sanctification of each blessed moment of the day, from opening your eyes at the dawn to fluttering them closed at the nightfall–i think tashlikh is among the most poetic. practical, too.
at the start of the days of awe, the most blessed stretch from rosh hashanah, the new year, to yom kippur, the day of atonement, you walk onto the sands of the beach, or to the banks of a river, you take a fine hunk of bread (or honeycake; more on that later), and you toss it, casting away each one of your sins.
the custom, i read, has roots in antiquity. the romans had a similar ceremony. when the floods came, and they did, believe me, in the land of the aqueduct, before maybe all of the wrinkles were quite ironed out, the god-fearing romans would toss stalks of grain into the swift rising waters.
it was their fervent desire to unruffle the feathers of gods who might resent their wresting of foods from the earth, a.k.a. plowing the fields. sounds a bit like throwing a steak to the lion. but nonetheless, their grains they did cast.
up in old germany too, they tossed as well. petrarch, the 14th-century poet and thinker, tells of watching folks in cologne toss things in the rhine. (the book that i read doesn’t spell out what sorts of things, but i don’t think he means whatever was left of their picnics.) which means the christians borrowed from pagans. and now the jews have taken over the franchise.
except for the likes of me. i like tossing my crumbs and my sins, all in one swoop. i find standing at the water’s edge, on a day when the sun is strong on my back and the breeze is soft on my cheeks, rather superior to tiptoeing into a little dark closet, where to kneel on a kneeler is to feel all the bumps in my knees. and i rather dislike the sound of the sliding wood door. the one between you and the priest, and the baring of all of your sins.
i’ll take the beach, please.
and so will my little one. the one who seems to have deep theological stirrings, even if he can’t quite get a grip on his pencil. even if he can’t make a capital G that doesn’t look like one of his Os laid down and died before making it home.
he was all over the very first outing to the beach, old challah in hand. we all lined up at the water’s edge, dropped our heads. he thought we should all drop to our knees too. then stand up, raise our hands to the sky, in some sort of salute, before tossing.
then, as soon as the first of the chunks hit the water, he shouted what all of us saw. “it’s coming back. it’s coming back. the sin is not going away.”
he was right, all right. it takes a mighty fat hunk of the bread to beat out the tide (such as it is in a lake as opposed to an ocean). which is why, i suppose, the writings on tashlikh prefer that you stick to the rivers.
the boomerang factor in lakes is a bit of a problem. at least and especially when you are in need of the water to take away sin.
eventually, after a few sodden re-throws, we got one or two of our sins to float out to sea. or, in our case, farther out in the lake.
but the young theologian was never convinced. “they’ll come back,” he warned the whole ride home. skeptic. or commonsensical thinker?
sure enough. next afternoon, just after i’d finished using my outside voice inside, just after he’d trespassed across the wide-plank pine floors in his soccer cleats, he found what he was looking for: “mom. see. your sin came back. because you were just mean. i knew it would float back.”
it is one thing to feel heavy of heart all by your lonesome. it is wholly another to have your sins announced and broadcast, as if play-by-play in the top of the eighth. and you now are losing, 0 to 1.
me and the one trying hard to get a grip on this sin thing, we tried it again. went back to the beach. not on rosh hashanah when you’re supposed to, when we did it the first time. we went again on any old wednesday. this time i brought the honeycake. the getting-stale honeycake that no one wanted to eat. i figured it would suffice for the casting of sins, take two.
that’s when the gull came. gobbled that sin before it had even a chance to come back to the shore. but at least it is gone now.
my theological one, however, remains unconvinced. he thinks this casting of sins needs some revisions. lying in bed just last night, on his slow road to dreamland, he offered this six-year-old thinking:
“they just float back to you, the sins. in the sea water from far, far away, they go up and down, up and down, and then they come, back to our house. and then the seagulls and all kinds of stuff, it makes more sin when it gets all yucky. and then in the winter when snow comes it gets digged in. and it will rot in a hole in the beach.”
what he’s thinking might work is: “we can get a shovel, and put all of our sins in a hole, and before you cover it up, you crinkle it up, and then you put sand over it, and wait for a wave to cover it up.”
he told me a sin is when you say a bad word. then he offered examples. “dumb,” he told me, was the first bad word that he learned.
but then, the son of a catholic, he must have been pondering levels of sin, advanced and not-so-advanced, sort of like lessons in swimming. “mom,” he began, “what if you said the bad word quietly?”
the boy, clearly, has much in his head on the subject of sin. it is not such a bad thing, i don’t think. he is learning his way in the world, a world where a playground each day, brings new assaults. kicks in the shin. and words i wince to hear.
each one of us, somehow, needs to learn what feels right, what feels wrong. and what of forgiveness.
if it works for my boy to take a shovel and dig a deep hole. to toss all of his thoughts that aren’t so nice. and his words that are dumb. well then, we’ll dig. and we’ll crinkle it up. and we’ll chase away gulls. and any old bird that thinks a sin is a snack.
when really it’s garbage, and we don’t want it back.
seeing as there are scholars among you, does anyone know how other religions cast away sin? while sin is not something i think about every day, i have been thinking of late. and i think it worth pondering that in this increasingly secular world, there is room–and a ritual–for cleansing the parts of our selves that don’t get scrubbed in any old shower. i think watching a child come to understand that we all have impulses that aren’t so nice, but oh-so-human, is rather a blessed position. do any of you have a tashlikh sort of story to tell?
and for those of us who will spend tomorrow in fasting and prayer and atonement, may each one of us–and everyone not in a synagogue–find that place of forgiveness, and the infinite blessing to start over again. trying not to succumb to temptations dumb, or plain stupid.
SECRET ADMIRER FROM UPPER EAST SIDE
i loved reading this piece on the eve of you kippur. it’s wise and playful at the same time. that 6-year-old of your’s is quite a theologian and you are quite a writer.
Friday, September 21, 2007 – 08:50 AM
It didn’t dawn on me when I decided to honor the holy and the sacred in a hospital instead of a parish that sin would be such a conversation in my day to day work.
from a child who believes that not listening to their parents brought on their illness, to a parent who believes that their faults brought on their child’s illness, I hear it often. Within all of theological papers that I submitted to professors, I came to rest in sin being the moment when we are most separate from God, when we think we can do it all on our lonesome and don’t need God to be with us in our life. I realize we typically don’t wax political here at the table, but I struggled in one of my grqad school classes when we had to write on the topic of sin. At this point and time, the leader of the current administration provided the world with a map and put two red dots on it to pinpoint the axis of evil. Somehow his definition of sin and evil, that it was over there and we were immune to it, just didn’t work for me. And so whether he knew it or not, his definition of sin helped me to flush out what was and wasn’t a part of my definition of sin.
I am so grateful for the 6 year-old theologians in our midst, who ask the questions that we don’t slow down long enough to ask. I will turn to a 6 year old for wisdom any day over the former definer mentioned above. I am grateful for Jewish brothers and sisters who teach me of he gift and opportunity to ask for forgiveness at the beginning of a new year.
As the bread flows with the water, ebbing and flowing far away from our greatest hopes to love and returning in the moment when we let our guard down, may we stand on the crest of a wave and see the horizon. May we see that there is light to guide us as we cast bread on the water and as we return to our houses and find that there is still more bread to be made, which in the end will lead to the need to cast more bread.
Friday, September 21, 2007 – 09:44 AM
amen. and a sigh.
i am so deeply grateful for the wise ones who sit down beside us. bless you for all the above, which i will mull through the day and the ‘morrow. “the point at which we are most separate from God.” a finer definition i don’t know that i’ve heard.
p.s. we might not talk politics often, but no feathers ruffled over here at my place at the table, not from a word that you wrote……i’d quite agree….just for the record, that is…..somehow i don’t think that’s surprising, at all…..
Friday, September 21, 2007 – 10:07 AM
Thank you, slj, for your thoughts. A good day to have them as I ponder much at a very transtional time in my life, and on the day of the erev Yom Kipper. “The point at which we are most separate from God”, casts a new light, a different paradigm, on how to think about this subject. Not a very traditional definition of sin, but a very useful one, in looking at my own, at least. Thank you.
And to the hostess of the table: I agree with your secret admirer from NYC. He is and you are, indeed.
A meaningful holiday to all.
Friday, September 21, 2007 – 10:31 AM
to the mother of the six-year-old sage:
If the six-year-old’s soccer cleats are a bit too muddy and the day job deadline is hanging over your head, I will gladly go find a north shore oak tree to sit beneath and hear of his questions and thoughts about the world. I imagine we would laugh some, but I imagine that there would be other moments where I would feel as if I was sitting under the bodhi tree with the buddha.
The Hindus have a common greeting, “namaste.” This doesn’t just mean, “hi, how are you,” but it goes much deeper to a place of saying, “the divine in me, greets the divine in you.” So, yes, I say namaste to the 6-year-old and all others who are connected to this table. Amidst acknowledging our brokeness in our life, I am glad that we can also know that the divine sparks run through our veinds too.
namaste on this most beautiful day
Friday, September 21, 2007 – 12:04 PM
namaste. thank you for reminding me of its depth of meaning……i hear an old yoga teacher say it when i hear it, but i like re-hearing it. you can come sit under an old oak any old time, but only if i can sit there as well. i wouldn’t give up a breath of six-year-old theology. i find it re-aligns my kaleidoscope every time. and to have you as the one shining the flashlight–your fluency in allllllllllll religions, all ways of seeing the divine–makes me a.) be eternally grateful, and b.) want to finally get back to some graduate school in comparative religions…..but i need a school with not a single spool of red tape. by the way, i have been out for hours, preparing for the feast before the fast, and my thoughts keep drifting back to what you wrote and i read hours ago….about the number of souls in a hospital, in a children’s hospital, for God’s sake, who harbor some fear that they are there in the first place because of some sin. that breaks my heart. as if their hell isn’t hell enough. to have to add blame to the equation. but it is sooooo human a tendency to do so. isn’t it?
on a whole nother note i keep thinking today, too, of carol, a frequent puller upper of chair. one of her three daughters is being married today, in a rose garden not far from here. from all of us at the table, blessings in abundance. what a magnificent day for a wedding…….and how lovely to have even the whisper of one, here at the table….
Friday, September 21, 2007 – 02:46 PM
You weave a tapestry of words just as beautiful and intricate as always today.
I just wanted to comment on how beautiful that photo is. The way the light dapples a thin line on the right wing. The powerful form of a bird. A bird that will never sin. Will never feel awe. Will never lie in bed, wondering what goes through those rushing waters. Will never look for God. Or god. Will never struggle to run away from the sea of sins that is inherent humanity.
Will never atone.
Friday, September 21, 2007 – 05:38 PM
to all who write so beautifully, who put my very thoughts and feelings to words in ways I never could, who make me stop and think in such a wonderful and thoughtful way, thank you!
Saturday, September 22, 2007 – 09:35 AM
I fall into the pit of despair when I dwell upon separation, devolving into comparison and my path of failure. Instead, this writing of Thich Nhat Hanh speaks to me:
“When I eat an orange, I can eat the orange as an act of meditation. Holding the orange in the palm of my hand, I look at it mindfully. I take a long time to look at the orange with mindfulness. ‘Breathing in, there is an orange in my hand. Breathing out, I smile at the orange.’ For me, an orange is nothing less than a miracle. When I look at an orange in the here and now, I can see it with my spiritual eyes – the orange blossom, the sunshine and the rain going through the blossoms, the tiny green orange, and then the tree working over time to bring the orange to full size. I look at the orange in my hand and smile. It is nothing short of a miracle. Breathing in and out mindfully, I become fully present and fully alive, and now I see myself as a miracle.
…if we know how to live, the Kingdom of God will manifest for us in the here and now; with one step we can penetrate it.
…if we know how to water the seed of the Kingdom of God in us each day, then the Kingdom of God will become the reality we live in every moment of our daily lives.”
Saturday, September 22, 2007 – 08:03 PM
Welcome back, wm u! I do not think living mindfully alone is a complete enough, nor a sure enough, response to the problem of sin. I could talk a bout that for hours, or paragraphs anyway, but that is not why I’m here now. I wanted to say amen to the importance of living in awareness and gratitude at all moments. How much do we take for granted? Practically everything! I know an orange, such a small thing, but so magnificent, is a miracle, when I pause to consider it, and to breathe it in and out. And yet breath itself is another thing we do not receive mindfully. Just now my husband took our little daughter to the ER because she is having sudden trouble breathing–I do not do these things lightly, and I was, and am, rather alarmed. She went to bed with no more than a sniffle. In all likelihood it’s a case of croup on the more severe end of the scale, but I am overwhelmed right now with the every day, every moment mundaneness of breathing and how in fact everything we do depends on it. We don’t need an orange in our hands to breathe in and breathe out a wonder, a magnificent, simple miracle. We simply need to breathe.
Thanks, table folks, for being here in the middle of the night as I sit and wait for my husband and my baby to come home, safe, healthy, and breathing.
Sunday, September 23, 2007 – 02:58 AM
Okay, little girl has a rather severe case of croup, and got home at 6 a.m. Everybody’s fine, even mommy and daddy. Now back to the actual conversation.
Because I am a Christian I see this in Christian terms. Sin exists and it must be dealt with. On a daily basis this means acknowledging that sorrowful fact, acknowledging our separation from God and our failure to live honoring the image of God in which we are made. And repenting. And accepting the costly forgiveness of God. And moving on, renewed, into another day. Maybe to put it in your terms I might say that living mindfully–living in honesty and the truth of things in every moment–includes as a necessary, inherent component, an acknowledgment of one’s own limitations and failures. Otherwise it is not living mindfully really; it is living in self-delusion.
I don’t know. It is awfully hard to try and talk across the police tape which cordons us off, one group from another. That police tape itself is part of the problem under discussion. In the ultimate kingdom of God there won’t be any more police tape, any more separation, either from our best true selves, from God, or from one another, the wide world over.
Let me just say thanks–this is easy–for that beautiful vivid image of the orange, which came to me so easily mere hours after I read it, came to me when I needed it.
And everybody else too. And perhaps, the little guy most of all, for giving voice and meaning to that sad conundrum of the bread rolling back upon the waters, back to us, inescapably. May we all get seagulls to gobble up that bread when we need it most never to return. And may we all enjoy our breathing today…..
Sunday, September 23, 2007 – 10:16 AM
blessed jcv, blessed all of you. blessed orange, and blessed breath…..for each one of you taking a thread of this issue and weaving it, making it into a tapestry, that we can carry away with us. so many times yesterday, deep in prayer, i wanted to grab a pen from my backpack, underline a line that i wanted to share with you, from the prayer. but i have grabbed a pen in a synagogue–not the one i go to most often–and it was a problem, that grabbing a pen. ooops. catholic girl in synagogue crosses line. she didn’t know, really she didn’t. but anyway, i wish for everyone the most sacred day of atonement. the jewish understanding of all the nuance of the soul, of humanity, is profound, is breath taking. it is not simplistic, not at all. nor does it pull a single punch. every imaginable shortfall of the soul is laid bare, is looked at. there is something about being at once so drawn into your own soul-searching, and to be in a crowd, to know that each well-dressed, scrubbed person there in the rows beside you is engaging in the same sort of soul-scrubbing. the line i most loved, well maybe not most but certainly a lot, which i didn’t underline, but committed to heart is this……
“for those who die with the music still in them, but have not sung….”
i found that achingly hauntingly humbling. may we all find a way to sing. be it through breath. or through the mindful peeling of a magnificent orange. thank you to those who come to this table for that very communion, the communion of taking down police tape, passing orange segments, from one to another, along with some thoughts on the subject of sin…….bless you all…..
by the way, jcv, thank God the little one is breathing again. that you would come here in your hour of fear is quite something. sorry i wasn’t awake to sit with you…….those sentences as i read them were pretty darn alarming. may her breath and yours flow freely today……
Sunday, September 23, 2007 – 11:49 AM
Catching my breath as I read the weekend….and contemplating the breath of Wm. U and JCV’s little one….and what it is to wait at home while a loved little one is away at the hospital…and feel separated from more than just God. Slj’s interpretation of sin is the one I subscribe to also. Well….the sins float in and the sins float out…that is only human. It is the dealing with our “sins” that helps us grow….not sure I want to be with those who believe themselves without sin…and so I breathe in and out, in and out – one wave at a time, knowing that the separation will come and go…a thousand mistakes makes for a beautiful life. Thanks BAM and the young theologian – Happy blessed new year Amen
Sunday, September 23, 2007 – 07:26 PM
My rabbi called Yom Kippur the day of “At Onement” the day of being at peace with one’s self and one’s transgressions. In that case, having the bread come back a little soggy, ready to sink, but still visible makes sense. At least to me!
By the way, BAM and all the others, a GREAT table discussion!
Tuesday, September 25, 2007 – 09:47 PM