Book of Michah: 7:19
“You will cast all your sins into the depth of the sea”
Why the Emphasis on Sin?
There is a wonderful religious service, which many congregations observe on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah.
It’s called Tashlich and it involves Jews gathering on the banks of a river or sea, and tossing pieces of bread into the flowing waters.
The ritual is inspired by the words of the prophet, Micah, who — thousands of years ago — wrote, “You will cast (Tashlich) all your sins into the depths of the sea “(7:19)
Within our congregation, it is one of the most popular services of the year, mostly because, after a full day in synagogue, it’s fun to gather in casual clothing around 4 pm, and toss away our sins — spiritually attached to the bread — as we bid both farewell.
More than 100 members of our congregational family attend this service every year — along with friends and even pets.
We sing, dance and laugh as we participate in this symbolic physical act designed to balance the soulful praying that we engage in during synagogue services.
But last year, as we began to exit the platform along Long Island Sound, a thoughtful young man, who happens to be named Micah, approached me and asked a probing question.
“What’s all this about sin, he asked? Isn’t that a bit harsh? “
And after pondering the question for a half minute, I looked at him and replied, “I think you may be right “
Indeed, as I mentioned during my second—day Rosh Hashanah sermon, it is time to revisit some of these ancient concepts of sin, punishment and forgiveness — as we engage in the courageous project to rebrand Judaism for a new generation.
Notes Archie Gottesman, co—founder of an organization called JewBelong, dedicated to bringing spirituality and meaning back to Judaism:
“Everyone craves meaning, and if Jews are not going to get it from Jewish practice, then they are going to find it, with Yoga or somewhere else.
She quotes a Manhattan Orthodox rabbi, who once said to her, “Judaism is a great product, but the marketing sucks. “
As we approach Yom Kippur — the final phase of our 10 day period of introspection — and seek to engage a younger generation of Jews, we need to ask: How is this emphasis on sin, guilt and imperfection working for us?
Many of us come from a generation in which it was commonplace to withhold praise We lived in a tough time where reprimand and rebuke were too common, where one of the most famous lines heard in so many 1950’s and 1960’s homes was, “Wait until your father gets home “
But nowadays, talk of sin and evil do not resonate. Is it any wonder that young adults like Micah, looking to explore the basis of religion, are entitled to ask, “What’s all this about sin? “
On Rosh Hashanah we are told that God writes our fate in the Book of Life, and seals our destiny on Yom Kippur.
There is so much pressure As Yom Kippur approaches its end, we hear, “Change now — the gates are closing “ We tap ourselves on the heart as we confess a multitude of sins — many of which I’m not sure we have committed.
It’s a confusing theology especially within our current culture, where we are urged to empower and encourage each other.
So where does the idea of sin fit in, and how can we make the liturgy, which is so guilt—based, into something that can inspire us?
My cousin, Rabbi Yisroel Roll, has an important take on this As a former pulpit rabbi and a therapist, he encourages us, as the long list of ancient sins is recited in synagogue, to tap our hearts with our fists and recite the words, “I can do better “
“I can do better, by using words to build rather than destroy “
“I can do better, by gossiping less “
“I can do better by softening my heart “
“I can do better by being less stubborn “
“I can do better by letting go of grudges and resentments “
“I can do better by seeking less pleasure and more purpose “
Indeed, it’s important to note that the idea of looking at these holy days, as Days of Awe, dates back to a time when the Jewish people lived in tenuous and fragile times, subject to the whims of occupiers and foreign powers.
Who knew when political or religious tides would change? Who knew when the Jewish people would be permitted to live or condemned to die? Who by fire and who by water?
During today’s difficult political times, with racism and hate on the rise, as we observe the environmental deterioration of the planet, who knows what will occur this upcoming year?
And while we cannot overhaul governments, or rid the world of racism or environmental stresses — and while we can’t predict or determine many of the health challenges we will face this next year — we can influence our corner of the world by being more mindful, more caring and more compassionate.
Micah was right last year when he asked, “Isn’t focusing on sin a bit harsh? “
We need to be mindful of the heartfelt sentiments of modern day Micahs because for a new generation, a religion which focuses on sin and guilt, may find itself out of step with the modern world.
Will God, with a mighty hand, determine our fate for the next year? Perhaps But I’m more likely believe that by on positivity and enlightenment, we can produce a better future for ourselves, our families and the world beyond.
Earlier this week, as we gathered in Morgan Park to participate in the Tashlich ceremony, I called upon Micah to read from the Book of Micah, as I encouraged those present to “toss those things in our personality, which we need to get rid of.“
For when we toss overboard our spiritual trash, grudges and the scorecards we keep on each other — we push down our egos, and enable God to enter.
As we gather for Yom Kippur on Tuesday evening until the blast of the shofar on Wednesday night, let us remember not only to confess sins, if believe we have committed any, but more importantly, let us have the courage to envision more positive life patterns and new habits to “make ourselves into something better.“
When we recite the words on the page which read, “For the sin I have committed, “let the words in our hearts actually be saying, “I can do better I can do better I can do better.”
May we all be sealed in the books of life, health, peace and happiness?
Let us work with God, to make ourselves into something better, and to fill those blank pages and the world around us — with life.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah (May your inscription be a good one.) Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman