As tonight at sundown begins the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, or the birthday of the world, I would like to share this essay, which first appeared on ReadTheSpirt.com earlier in the week. A happy, healthy new year to all of my readers, and to everyone!
We will walk through the cascading hills of Cranbrook’s grounds, between and among the tree-shaded trails. The kids will climb into the arms of a steady old tree, balance in the fork of branches, jump down without fear. We will debate whether to take the path that leads to a carefully scripted line of boulders, where they can dance and skip from rock to rock, or take the other path, the back way, and end up at a grand finale of stones.
At some point in the middle of this autumn hike, my four children, husband and I will pause beside the water. Most years, it’s the drumming river next to the Japanese gardens, but last year we sat on a platform beside the still and silent pond. Either way, we’ll open the bag of old bread and crumble pieces into crumbs to disseminate over the water’s surface, letting the current take last year’s choices and regrets away forever, making room for this year’s clean slate.
This is the tradition I’ve built with my family in the spirit of tashlich, the Jewish practice on Rosh Hashanah, or sometime between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later. Tashlich is the ritual of throwing away our sins so that we may start anew, start fresh, in the dawning of a new year.
It’s a cleansing, so to speak, of the soul.
When I became a single mother of three young children in 2008, I began my journey toward personalizing my spiritual pursuits. I grew up as a secular Reform Jew, doing my duty – services twice a year, where my sister and I camped out in the synagogue bathroom and commented on other people’s outfits. Bored by the observances, we muscled through until the time when we were set free into the parking lot and onward to home, to imbibe on chicken soup and matzoh balls and revel in the day off from school.
In young adulthood, I chose Orthodoxy, my form of rebellion. I spent a decade in the ritualistic rigidity of very traditional Judaism, learning the roots of my heritage, observing as much as I could stomach. I sat in long services on two days of Rosh Hashanah, trying not to fidget from the not-knowing, the lack-of-understanding. My rabbi had compassion; he encouraged me to attend a learner’s service, admitting that the high holy day observances are heavy, too much for someone not raised in the culture of immersion.
I dreaded the 25-hour fast day of Yom Kippur, though I did it, muscling through in the way that I did as a child in my liberal synagogue. Either way, I didn’t find my place in my religion until I set myself free from an unhappy marriage at the age of 37. It was then that I felt brave enough, confident enough, strong enough, to create my own rituals, and involve my children in tangible observance of our long tradition.
The first time I took the kids to Cranbrook for tashlich, I made a conscious choice not to use the word ‘sin,’ which is the common construction for this practice. The bread crumbs symbolize our sins, which we cast off for the moving waters to carry away from us. And then we are free, free from sin, a clean canvas with which to start a new year, in hopefully better spirits and character than the one just ended.
I didn’t want to teach my children that our religion is a punishing one. I wanted them to embrace themselves in success and in failure, and the word sin has such a harsh connotation. So I used the word ‘choice’, asking the then 2-, 4- and 6-year-old sweet ones what choices they would like to make in the coming year.
“I will be nicer to my brother,” said one of my children.
“I will listen to Mommy more,” said another.
“I will read more books,” said the third one.
And I joined them, admitting my own human-ness in front of these precious souls.
“I will try not to yell,” I said. It was hard being a single mother; I was easily excitable in those early years trying to figure it out for myself. I threw that regret into the waters and watched the bread crumb dissolve into nothingness.
After the bread supply was depleted and I had just a plastic bag left to carry home, we continued on our journey. The Pewabic tiled fountain under leafy pine and maple. The cairn beside the swampy pond. Overgrown shrubbery nearly obscuring the narrow path toward the majestic old house with its fountains and gardens.
We climbed to the Greek amphitheater and the children ran up and down the rows of seats, called with echoing voices from the open stage. We were free in the forest, reveling in our connection and in the freedom to be reborn after making mistakes, grateful for second chances.
My children are older now and I am thankfully calmer. We still do our tashlich routine, a favorite of mine, with each passing year. We go to synagogue to mark the significance of the holiday season with community, but it isn’t until we get out in the open air and sunshine that we feel energized to start anew.
I have two middle-schoolers who roll their eyes at me even as they snuggle in close. I have a third-grader and a fifth-grader, too. All are wrapped in their version of good and bad, their understanding of the way our world rejuvenates itself.
I still use the word ‘choice,’ preferring its participatory connotation over the finger-wagging ‘sin.’ As we stroll along the pine-scented trails, I listen more than I talk, letting them take the stage, letting them share their revelations of what it is to live a good life, what it is to release regret into the warm hug of the generous world.
Lynne Meredith Golodner is author of eight books including The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. She owns a public relations company called Your People LLC, guiding spiritually-focused businesses and nonprofits in storytelling and relationships to build their reach, and blogs daily at www.lynnegolodner.com. She lives with her husband and four children in Huntington Woods, Michigan.