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Yom Kippur End 2012: Reflecting on A Holiday Celebrated with Tea, Not Bread

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, and as I wrote this, I had just done tashlich with tea.

Let’s not talk about why I was drinking tea on a day of fasting (I happened to be coming down with a cough), or why I was doing tashlich at the last possible minute (because I’m forgetful and lazy), or why I did tashlich with tea instead of bread (again, forgetful, and I happened to be walking along the river drinking tea).

The point is, I finally did tashlich.

Tashlich is a beautiful tradition in which we tear up pieces of bread, throw them into flowing water, and repent our sins: one torn piece of bread, one sin. It is supposed to be performed during the Days of Awe, the just-over-a-week nestled between the High Holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As a kid, I would tear my bread into a few pieces to appease the Hebrew School teachers, throw most into the Raritan River (sorry, little sister), and shove the rest in my mouth. Though I thought it silly then, as I got older I haven’t stopped performing tashlich, no matter the inconvenience.

When studying abroad in Jordan, I waited an extra week out of both necessity (it being a desert and all) and profundity, as I was going on a trip to the Jordan River. In college I would tuck a prayer book into my bag and wake up early to go down to the Schuylkill before class. I’ve even left synagogue early during High Holiday services in order to make it back home in time for high tide. Yesterday, I used tea instead of bread, determined to perform this ritual before sundown and time ran out.

Tashlich is one of the only traditions that I feel is of critical importance for my own Jewish identity. In the Judaism I grew up with, there are communal rules or traditions, but in the end, each person’s learned interpretation of these is correct. I am religious in my own way, observant in my own way, spiritual in my own way. And I practice in my own way, vaguely guided by the lessons of my youth. Religion might have become obsolete for many of us in our twenties, but it doesn’t have to be: the way I practice and identify with Judaism has morphed to complement my secular life choices, not the other way around.

I usually forget religion exists at all. I don’t feel or think about being Jewish, really, until the holidays when I look around and realize I am the only one, all alone, so far outside my home planet where everyone does tashlich and whines and (mostly) fasts. It is this need to be a part of some amorphous far-away community that makes me so desperate to repent for my sins I perform this sacred rite with Earl Grey on my way home from the coffee shop (next to a pizza parlor, insult to injury, I tell you) where I was drinking the tea and writing the next few installments of my Abortion Watch series and dreaming about the seriously un-kosher break fast I intended to have in a few hours.

I almost passed the creek on the walk home, actually, but generations of Jewish guilt instantaneously clobbered me and I stopped. I can’t not do it. The water’s right here. Tea, bread, what’s the difference? I have to do it.

Do I believe throwing pieces of bread or drops of tea, symbolically endowed with my sins, into flowing water are going to earn me any points come Judgment Day? Do I even believe in Judgment Day? Do I believe I’ll be washed clean, inscribed in the Book of Life? Do I think God is listening, that he/she is going to forgive me, or that those whom I’ve wronged are going to magically forgive my multitudinous, egregious sins against them and society?

Probably not, but that’s not the point.

Asking forgiveness, however it is done, is fundamentally self-reflection. It encourages us, on our own terms and held accountable only to ourselves (or God, I guess), to be better next year. In the end, being a better person is the whole point, whether the endgame is to be written in the Book of Life, to reach heaven, to experience salvation, or to attain Enlightenment.

As I was dribbling my lukewarm tea into a creek in the mountains of Colorado, I asked forgiveness for sins against my community: for not speaking up for what’s right, for being apathetic, for believing in futility. I asked forgiveness for sins against myself: for not living up to potential or expectations, for being dishonest with myself, for being afraid of failure. Maybe next year.

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