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September 8, 2010

Central Casting: A tashlich meditation

http://www.jewishjournal.com/high_holy_days/article/central_casting_a_tashlich_meditation_20100908

Illustration by Carvin Knowles

Illustration by Carvin Knowles

My shoes slip off, my feet sink into soft sand and then approach the sea, where they submerge and are washed. But even freshly emerged from water, they remind me that just because you’ve washed something doesn’t mean it’s truly clean.

Rosh Hashanah marks the world’s birth — a new year, a new circle of Jewish holidays about to begin. The 10 days of repentance, which create the structure for apologies to self, neighbor and to God. Tashlich, the ritual in which bread is cast as sin and then cast out of us and into the water, is part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. It is Tashlich, this opportunity to make physical the act of rejecting iniquity, that draws me to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, steps away from the frivolity and fun of the Santa Monica Pier.

This year, I am even more self-reflective than usual. I’ve tried to do what’s right, but so seldom is any account of events objectively true. Any judge worth his salt (and let’s face it, God deals salt in pillars) would — having considered the evidence against me, and against everyone else — have to return a verdict of guilty.

That’s the point, isn’t it? That behind our blogs and sunglasses and screenplay optioning and convertibles, we’re all, always, guilty. Every year. It would be disappointing if it weren’t so remarkably, and perhaps impressively, consistent: This treadmill of a year provides a very convincing illusion of progress, but, 12 months later, we’re back at the shores of our own regret, pondering reward and punishment, right and wrong, apologies and repentance. And in every “afterward” of a heartfelt return to what is right and just, our feet bear the mark of the immersive instant — the proof of penance attempted, but also of the missteps of intervening months.

How fitting, in this age and in this city, to cast bread in the role of seasonal villain. In the spring, it represents ownerless dust that we are forbidden to own, let alone consume; but now, in the fall, central casting has determined it to be sin personified. My Tashlich carb-of-choice is no chemically altered Wonder bread — it’s complex, hard-to-digest, insoluble fiber. I imbue it with the burden of all my misdeeds and cast it out into the water. It should sink, but there are no cement shoes on my sins: those suckers float straight to the top, taunting me as they dance weightlessly over the waves.

I stare at the bread that remains, try to parse the grains one from another. I think of the grains as words within a conversational whole, the paragraphs and pages of words I’ve spoken and written about other people, and try to cast them in some different light. Maybe that sentence wasn’t really slander; maybe those words didn’t really do any significant damage. Little things get complicated when you don’t stop to think about them individually. Not by bread alone do human beings live, but in the nuanced complexity of carbohydrates, writ in the Book of Life.

The birds swoop down, scavengers of actual and metaphorical shores, greedy for my sins. They don’t seem to get that those morsels of perceived nutrition are poison, toxins I have cast out and rejected.

In delving into self and sinking into sand, we have to be ever vigilant, making sure that what fuels us is not someone else’s toxic refuse. We can glean inspiration from the waves — constant and reliable in their approach, but individually distinct. We might watch our sins, hoping to see them vanish from our vision, and be disappointed as they bob stubbornly along, reminding us of what we’ve done. And even as we turn our backs on the shore of the New Year, we may feel cleansed, but don’t cast our glances downward. If we did, we’d see that, despite our immersion, a residue remains on the surface of our skin.

But, in its repetition, what this annual process asserts is that those first steps are important, even if they are the same ones every year, even if there is backsliding. At the water’s edge, the undertow can seduce us, but it’s up to us to step back from the void, grip the sand with our toes and keep ourselves centered and rooted, as those individual grains that used to be parts of us are swept out to sea.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer and consultant living in Los Angeles.

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