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Tashlich at Walden: The Gift of a Home

By Elizabeth Tragash

We called ourselves "The Exiles." There were ten of us who had left our synagogue in the heat of an annual meeting. The details are irrelevant, suffice it to say that the fire of temple politics burned out of control, rendering a spiritual home into a spiritual wasteland. We spent the spring and summer nursing our individual and collective wounds. Now it was autumn, the season of Teshuvah, of returning. But for us there was no place to return; for now, we were a group of nomads wandering in an unknown desert.

The first day of Rosh ha Shana was very difficult. I was not ready to enter a synagogue full of strangers, to hear familiar prayers chanted by unfamiliar voices. I spent the day wandering from room to room, glancing at the prayer book, trying to study the Torah portion. Even the story of Sarah and her longing for a child could not soothe my own yearning for a place to call a spiritual home.

My children, who fidget within minutes of entering the sanctuary, were restless even at home. One child busied herself with schoolwork while the other contracted a mysterious fever, lessening my guilt about not attending services. But nothing could assuage the pain I felt about being a Jew without a home. I was glad to see that long day draw to a close.

I anticipated that the second day would be easier since we planned to gather as a group to perform the ceremony of Tashlich. Custom dictates that we fill our pockets with breadcrumbs that represent our sins and cast them into a moving body of water. For our group, it would be a time of casting off our individual transgressions as well as a time to symbolically rid ourselves of the substantial pain and regret we had accumulated over the past year.

We gathered on the shores of Walden Pond. It was a Sunday morning and the skinny stretch of beach was crowded with sunbathers and swimmers out to capture the remnants of Indian Summer. We walked, prayer books in hand, along the narrow trails passing hikers and strollers until we found a secluded spot.

We are a leaderless group but, as one who once aspired to become a rabbi, I often fall into the role of spiritual leader. Today I would need to address the needs of the adults while trying to make this a positive experience for our children who ranged in age from toddlers to teens. I began by talking about the idea of "sin" and "transgression", asking the children for examples of acts they had committed over the past year that they might regret. They spoke of fighting with siblings and disobeying parents, the simple stuff of which childhood "sins" are made.

We talked about how the time between Rosh Ha Shana and Yom Kippur is a time of reflection and renewal, a time to think about the things we may not like about ourselves and the things we might like to change. The adults smiled in sympathy as Adam, who recently celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, gave a poignant example of how he did not like his size and wanted to grow taller.

We walked out along the narrow edges of the inlet to cast our breadcrumbs into the larger body of the pond. The children hurled chunks of bread out into the water, laughing as they enjoyed this unique ceremony that was much more fun than being cooped up inside a synagogue. The adults wore more pensive faces as we cast off the symbolic weight of the past year.

Feeling lighter, I walked back to the inlet to resume the service. I noticed a man and a woman and two young ladies talking with some of the group members. I assumed that one of our members had invited them to join us but decided to wait until after the ceremony concluded to make introductions.

We read the traditional Psalms and sang the words of Hashivenu, with its theme of returning to God and renewing ourselves.

Hashivenu Adonai Elecha, V'na-shuvah, Chadesh yameynu K'kedem

"Turn us to you Oh Lord and we shall return. Renew us as in the ancient days."

Our voices were tentative, wandering off key then gradually rising with our spirits. It is customary to sound the shofar on the first day of Rosh ha Shana or, if the first day falls on a Sabbath, to do so on the second day. This was a job that fell to Adam who had brought his prized shofar with him. We sang the first notes of the shofar service: "T'Kiah". Adam pursed his lips and blew into the ram's horn, emitting a faint, static sound. This continued over several attempts, some of us smiling encouragement, while others suggested that he could try again next year.

Adam was a determined youngster and, unlike his height, this was something that he could alter with his own efforts. Finally, he found the right combination of mouth movements and breaths that produced a series of full-bodied sounds. We applauded his "T'kiah Gadolah" with laughter and exuberant clapping.

The woman from the visiting family stepped forward and thanked us for including her family in our ceremony. She explained that they lived in North Carolina and were traveling in Massachusetts to bring their two daughters back to college. She commented on the coincidence of encountering us performing Tashlich while they were strolling along the shores of Walden Pond.

Her eyes filled with tears, her voice wavering as she spoke of how hard it was to be away from home at the holidays and how grateful she was to be welcomed into our group. She asked if she could chant a blessing that is recited at her synagogue after the Shofar service. We nodded our consent and the woman broke down and wept. I looked around and saw tears streaming down many faces as her pain at being far from home resonated with our own.

Regaining her composure, the woman chanted in Hebrew. It was a prayer asking that our words be lifted to God's ears. As I listened to her chanting these new, yet strangely familiar words, I realized that we had found a home. We had wandered in what was once Thoreau's wilderness and created a sanctuary, performing a ritual that has been passed from generation to generation.

We had honored the age-old injunction to open our home and our hearts to the stranger in our midst. In doing so, we had given each other the gift of a spiritual home that would transcend this place and this moment, sustaining us as we continued along our respective journeys into the New Year.

It was a gift that I would carry with me as I ventured forth into the unknown terrain that lay ahead. In the times when I felt rootless and alone, when my direction was unclear, I would close my eyes and visualize those moments when we came together on the shores of Walden Pond and I would feel as if I had returned home again.


from the October 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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