Down by the riverside on a clear, sunny, Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I see my opportunity. A pack of Jews ahead of me, and one behind me, meandering, wandering as is our national proclivity. And one patch of fence in the middle, isolated–this area is my field of dreams, my pulpit, the plank which I will force my sins to walk, over the edge of the guardrail, plummeting into the Hudson.

Earlier that morning, I was only three words into U’netaneh Tokef when I realized how often I get trapped inside my own head. With 30-some-odd years of intoning the words, studying the letters, understanding the meanings, I don’t have the luxury of just uttering words and moving on. I know them, inside and out, each Hebrew letter in each word, the words together as a paragraph, the meaning, the nuance, the connotations that they invoke in me…these words, I’m internalizing them, thinking about them too much.

This overthinking of things is a gift/curse from my parents, the funders of my education, who provided me with these tools to overanalyze my actions, my words, and the actions and words of other people, even if they are flat, recorded on a standardized page. I break up my bagel into small pieces and toss them into the river, watching as the physical representatives of my wrongdoings defy dissolution and float north on the Hudson, away from me, and actually, in the direction of my parents’ house in New Jersey.

I remembered my incantation from earlier that day. Today is the birthday of the world, today we stand in judgment. If as children (before their father), or if as slaves (before their master). I think of my relationship with God, and how it seems like neither parental bond nor enslavement. Most often it seems like absentee landlord, with only monthly rent-due statements shoved under the door as signs that anyone is watching at all. The sounds of the shofar call the Jewish people to attention, to assembly, to a place of unity and strength. But more often than not, I hear the blasts and feel them echo inside me, hollow sounds that somehow defy achieving resonance. This is a shul, but not my shul. The people in this room are divided. There is no communal strength to be found. My spiritual heart is a canyon.

But that was shul. Here, down by the river, there are no empty echoes, only reflections. Even though the water itself is too far from me to reflect my expression, I feel the reflection anyway. I see the sadness at a year’s close and another one’s start, the unfulfilled promises of the year gone by, and the inevitable hopes-turned-disappointments that would surely pepper the calendar in months ahead. Seeing pieces of bagel bob, seemingly unsinkable, above the water’s surface strikes me as a poor portent; it’s like watching pieces of my life–some good, some bad–floating away.

Standing in silence, I remember a year. Twelve months of expectations–some fulfilled, others decidedly not. Twelve months of hope springing, if not eternal, then anew. Remembering professional transitions and personal disappointments, the old reliables who vanished or changed molecularly, to be replaced by others, less seasoned and less trusted. I remember a year in which I became more vocal, for better or for worse, about what I was thinking and feeling, even if my soul felt unfulfilled as a result. I tried to appreciate closure even as it signified disappointment. I tried to rely less on circumstantial evidence and go with my instincts. I tried to be more open-minded and accepting, even of people who didn’t like me. I flew to new places, even at crash-and-burn risk, seeking illumination and hoping I didn’t get too close to the sun. I learned that virtual and actual families will always have their dysfunctions, but that hopefully the merits of inclusion outweigh any growing pains. I realized that some people are just never going to understand me.

These were great strides, sometimes over beds of nails or fire, but still, forward strides.

But I didn’t delve as deeply as I could have. I was less than honest with myself and others. When no one was looking, I took an extra something. I stayed up past my bedtime, and for no good reason.

After you confess your sins and throw them into the river, they don’t sink immediately. You’re not immediately rid of them. You watch them bobbing away, waving at you, saying “take care, babe, maybe I’ll see ya soon, but it’s up to you…”

The evil carbs of 5765 have floated upstream and are no longer visible. If you go down to the water now, you’ll see it for yourself. And while you’re there, toss a few crumbs of your own into the river, and watch as they sink into or float along the river. It will probably make you feel worse. But then, better.

(To participate in a virtual tashlich courtesy of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning, click here.)

About the author

Esther Kustanowitz

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  • Esther – Thanks for sharing that. I feel inspired to take a trip to my local River.

  • Thank you for writing about the Tashlich service. I have not been to one of these in far too long. It is my dirty little secret, I always put off going. Perhaps your article will inspire me to get off my lazy duff for once.