“How does throwing stuff into water get rid of our sins?”

If “throwing stuff into water” truly got rid of our sins, we’d be lined up on the river banks every day! If only it were that easy. The tradition of Tashlich, throwing breadcrumbs into a body of water on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, is an old Jewish tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, if not earlier. It is a metaphorical ritual suggesting that at this time of year we must get rid of our sins. We take a handful of crumbs and, by tossing them into the waters, we reflect on the power of casting our sins away. Why into water? In the Jewish tradition, water has great healing and purifying powers. The notion is that the water symbolically absorbs our sins and sets us free.

Tashlich is a lovely and powerful ritual. But alas, it is all completely symbolic. The only way to get rid of our sins is the old-fashioned way. The first step is to acknowledge that you have, in fact, sinned. Step two is to truly feel remorseful about what you’ve done. The third step is to right the wrong you have committed, through words and through deeds. The fourth step is to directly ask the person you’ve wronged for forgiveness. The fifth and final step is to promise that if you are in the same situation that caused you to sin the first time, you will refrain from sinning.

Our sins often weigh heavily on our minds and our souls. We really can get rid of our sins, but make no mistake: repentance is a tough process. There are no shortcuts or free passes. Judaism has no indulgences to pass out. Getting rid of sins requires humility and honesty and forces us to truly see how much damage and pain we cause, knowingly or unknowingly. We aren’t trapped by our past deeds. It’s hard work to come out clean on the other side, but with a repentant heart anything is possible.

created at: 2012-09-11

Rabbi Keith Stern is the rabbi at Temple Beth Avodah, a Reform synagogue in Newton Centre.

Going to synagogue to pray all day when you don’t usually go ever is like climbing a mountain after walking around the block once or twice. Check out InterfaithFamily’s Guide to the High Holidays for Interfaith Families: Training for a Marathon of Repentance for information about tashlich and other customs this season, and for an overview of all things Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, check out their Resource Page.