By Zahava Fried
My earliest childhood memory was of my (first!) conversion to Judaism when I was just five years old. I remember my mother’s hand holding onto mine as my rabbi gently instructed me to pretend that I was a fish and to dunk my head down just a little bit deeper. But the strongest sensation that I recall was the warm mikvah (ritual pool) water which embraced me in buoyancy and love. These waters acted as the gateway to my new Jewish life.
Water holds significant importance in Judaism, transcending its physical necessity as a life-sustaining element. One of the Hebrew terms for water is mayim chaim, or the water of life. This substance plays a central role in Jewish rituals, symbolizing purification, renewal, and spiritual connection, such as immersing in the mikvah or ritual hand-washing before eating bread. Additionally, the Torah’s stories also frequently link water to divine interventions, such as the parting of the Red Sea. Rabbi Brian Feld, the founder of Judaism Your Way, notes that water, specifically wells, “were the places where people gathered, strangers met, found hospitality and sometimes even fell in love.” Clearly the Jewish people’s love of water seems to know no bounds, which is why the High Holiday ritual of Tashlich always confused me.
Tashlich is a ritual in which individuals or communities gather near a body of flowing water, such as a creek or even an ocean, and then symbolically cast away their sins by throwing pieces of bread into the water while reciting a specific prayer. This act represents a spiritual cleansing and a desire for personal renewal as one starts the new year with a clean slate, as the water literally washes away the sin. It is a beautiful and meaningful ritual- but perhaps it is not the most environmentally sustainable one. Why would we choose to add any possible pollutants to a necessary, life-giving force?
Adding anything foreign to an ecosystem, can leave a negative impact despite any well-meaning intentions. Considering the emphasis on reflection that exists around the High Holiday season, I believe that it is paramount that we examine our actions, especially the seemingly innocent and well-intentioned ones, to ensure we did not inadvertently cause hurt. The same goes for our environment- some actions that we may deem as innocent may be the exact opposite. It is our responsibility to bring awareness to our actions and rituals, and to make the accommodations necessary to create meaning while remaining true to our shared tradition.
This Sunday, September 10th from 2:00-3:00, The Buffalo Jewish Federation and many of our Jewish organizational partners, will gather at Unity Island Park off of Niagara Street to facilitate our third annual Reverse Tashlich. This initiative created by Repair the Sea reinterprets the mindset behind traditional Tashlich and instead removes pollution from the world’s waterways. This new interpretation is designed to combine the desire for High Holiday spiritual reflection and renewal with the practical act of cleaning our water. You can still sign up to participate with us by clicking HERE and selecting “Buffalo” from the list!
Reverse Tashlich and Tashlich are not contradictory, rather they complement each other beautifully. I find that when I recite the words of the Tashlich prayers and tossing my leftover Shabbat challah into the creek to be a necessary moment I need individually with a Divine Presence. Reverse Tashlich, on the other hand, connects me to my greater community and reminds me that true healing happens in moments of togetherness and connectedness. In short, water is cleansing but only if we make it so.
Zahava Fried is Manager of Young Family Engagement with LiNK Jewish Buffalo and Cantorial Intern with Temple Beth Tzedek. She can often be found singing songs while juggling her two daughters, husband, and copious amounts of coffee and water, of course.