Tashlich, 9/11, and Pastor Terry Jones

Pastor Terry Jones in a photograph from Wikipedia creative commons

Tashlich is the practice of casting off transgressions at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. Each bit of bread we throw into moving water symbolizes a quality or event or behavior we do not want to carry with us into the New Year.

During my first Tashlich in Vancouver, a seagull swooped down and grabbed one of my sins in midair. Then I began to worry. Did the sin become part of the seagull? Had I somehow burdened another species with what I was trying to release? Does it count if the bread doesn’t hit the water?

I picture my rabbi back East rolling his eyes, something he often did when I would go to his house to study Talmud. Maybe it’s something he was taught in seminary, this eye-rolling, as if to say: Now I’ve heard everything!

And, of course, worry is one of the things each year I cast upon the water to be carried away.

This year, once again I take my bread to English Bay at sunset. I begin with Envy, that corrosive part of my nature that colours my view of others’ good fortune. Like an undertow, it pulls my heart down and away from the happiness I want to share with a friend who announces that he’s in love, for instance, or with a fellow writer who wins a literary prize that I myself had coveted. I’ve suffered envy since I was a child, the youngest of four, too young to climb the ladder to the tree house where my brother and sisters and their friends had taken their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I always wanted the thing my brother had, and even when on occasion it was given to me, I wanted the new thing he had—because he had it and I didn't.

I cast Envy out over the water.

Then there is Worry that has me lying awake, staring at the ceiling, long past midnight, thinking of everything that might happen or won’t happen. I worry about what other people will think if I do such and such, or if I fail to do thus and so. I make up story after story, each with a worse outcome than the previous one. Then I worry about the sleep this is costing me.

I toss Worry out over the water. 

Next is Anxiety, a sort of higher octave of Worry, perhaps.

Out over the water.

Then comes Fear, which is maybe the root of the previous two. Oh, most pernicious and sneaky Fear. A friend reminds me that FEAR stand for: “false evidence appearing real.” I am told over and over again by people more spiritually advanced than myself that the antidote to fear is faith. Ah, me of little faith. And I remember Gertrude Stein, who said, “Considering how dangerous everything is nothing is really very frightening.”

Releasing Fear, I toss the last bit of bread into English Bay and feel better, certainly lighter, as I walk home.

Not 24 hours later, I read about some jackass preacher in Florida who intends to burn a copy of the Koran. I’m furious, incensed. Suddenly it seems worth my time and the airfare just to go punch him in the nose. And the son of a bitch is ruining my Rosh Hashanah.

It takes me a while to realize I’m full of the very thing I want to thrash him for: self-righteous moral indignation. How dare he, a self-proclaimed man of the cloth, burn a sacred text? What kind of Christianity is that?

Anger. I forgot about anger when I was doing Tashlich. What now? Buy more bread and high tail it back down to English Bay? How could I forget anger? It's almost always related to my fear.

I lived in Maine at the time of the attack on the twin towers in New York City. One of my first impulses was to go a makeshift mosque around the corner from my house and to pray with my neighbors. Instinct told me that I might not be welcome, that they too were afraid—of me and my countrymen.

In the terrible days that followed, my Muslim neighbors disappeared from the streets. They had to be coaxed by school counselors and social workers into bringing their children back to school. Most of the Muslims in Portland were Somali refugees, many of whom had most likely never heard of the attackers. All they heard now was what was being broadcast in a language they were struggling to learn. All they saw were American flags everywhere. The advice they followed from their elders was to stay at home.

Once they felt safer, my Somali neighbors began to emerge, if only to walk their children to school and back. They would walk in groups. I took to standing on my front steps each morning with coffee and made a point to smile and nod at them as they passed my house on the last block before they reached the school. No need to speak. I was there if they needed me.

Tonight, I imagine that poor, misguided preacher in Florida is vexed by the same fear that appears to have most everyone in the US in its grasp. No matter what their political party or religious observance, Americans seem to be literally out of their minds with fear—of anyone or anything outside their borders, of each other, and, indeed, themselves. I am met with my own crazy fear when I watch what’s happening in the States. At moments, I am haunted not only by images of black men hung from trees and burning crosses, but also by the terrible specter of Kristallnacht, when 267 German synagogues were destroyed by the Nazis.

If Pastor Terry Jones were to have stood alongside me the other evening at English Bay, I wonder which of his own transgressions he might have chosen to cast out over the water? I have no way of knowing. Indeed, it’s none of my business. And though I cannot know what’s in this man’s heart, I suspect that he too suffers. At least now and again.

So this is my prayer: Lord have mercy on your people. Lord have mercy on us—all of us.

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