the sins that won’t float away

by bam

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.