Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Maria and Joel Finkle
When I was a little girl, I remember walking down to tashlikh at the stream not far from where my family gathered every year for Rosh Hashana. I loved the idea of saying a few words and just throwing all of our sins away into the water. I even had the misconception that we were supposed to physically throw something into the water.
The true custom of tashlikh is to congregate near a body of water and to say pesukim (verses) from the books of Micah (the Prophet) and Tehillim (Psalms). The key verses in Micah [7:18-20] state: “Who is a God like You, who forgives sins and passes over transgressions for the remnant of His heritage; He does not hold on forever to His anger, for He desires mercy. He will return and have mercy upon us, he will suppress our sins; and You shall cast all of their sins into the depths of the ocean.”
How should we understand this custom? During the Hebrew month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, we go through a process of introspection, of identifying where we need to improve, and resolving to do better. We don’t believe in magic formulas and simple solutions. What is tashlikh really all about?
The earliest mention of this custom is by an early 15th-century rabbi known as the Mahari”l, Rav Yaakov ben Moshe Molin. He cites as the inspiration for this custom a midrash from the Tanchuma [Parshat Vayera 22] which relates the following story. When Hashem commanded our forefather Avraham to bring his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice to Hashem, they reached the mountain on the third day of traveling. Why did such a short journey take so long? The midrash answers that the satan (devil) appeared in front of Avraham and Yitzchak as a great river blocking their path.
Undeterred, the two walked into the river. When the water level rose to Avraham’s neck, he looked up to the heavens and cried out, “Master of the World, You chose me and revealed Yourself to me… You commanded me to bring my son Yitzchak as an offering, and I did not hesitate; I am doing Your bidding… if I or my son Yitzchak should drown, who will keep Your word, who will declare the unity of Your Name?” Immediately, Hashem swears that Avraham will be the one to declare Hashem’s unity to the world, and He dries up the river so that Avraham can continue on his path.
The story in the midrash adds another dimension to Avraham’s sacrifice: not only was he willing to offer his beloved son Yitzchak as a sacrifice, but he was willing to give his own life as well while on the way to fulfill Hashem’s command.
And if tashlikh is intended to remind us of Avraham on the way to sacrifice Yitzchak, then we can connect it to the main mitzvah of Rosh Hashana: sounding the shofar. The shofar recalls Akeidat Yitzchak, and we beg Hashem for mercy in the merit of Avraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son to Hashem.
Perhaps tashlikh is meant to send the same message: we go to a body of water, and we ask Hashem to throw away our sins in the merit of Avraham, who was willing to sacrifice himself in the water for Hashem’s sake. In addition to calling upon the merit of Avraham as he made ultimate sacrifices, we might also consider where in our lives we can make smaller sacrifices for the sake of following Hashem’s mitzvot.
Furthermore, the shofar is present at the coronation of a king [I Kings, Chapter 1], and in many verses in malkhuyot in the Rosh Hashana prayers. Where does a coronation take place?
Fascinatingly, the Gemara in Horayot 12a states that we must anoint a king near a spring, to symbolize that their kingship will continue. We anoint him there as king, blow the shofar, and call out, “May King Shlomo live!” [I Kings, chapter 1]. So our walk to the stream takes on further meaning, reminding us both of Avraham’s great sacrifice and the idea of coronating Hashem as king.
Tashlikh, like the mitzvah of shofar, is then directed both inward and outward: we want to “remind” Hashem of the merits of Avraham and Yitzchak, at the same time as we remind ourselves of Hashem’s majesty, and therefore redouble our commitment to following His will. When we go to the ocean, the river, or the pond this Rosh Hashana, may we be inspired by the example of Avraham and Yitzchak to find ways we are able to rededicate ourselves to following Hashem, our King, and may we merit the fulfillment of the verse, “…and you shall cast all of their sins into the depths of the ocean.”