If you were a Jew living in Mosul a few hundred years ago, you might not have sufficed with just walking to the side of the river, or even tossing some bread into the river. More likely, if you followed common Kurdish custom, you would have rolled up your pants and waded right into the river.
This practice, of course, is quite perplexing. Tashlich is strange enough on its own. Why walk in? Of course, on Rosh Hashana of this year, the temperature in Mosul hit a high of 107 degrees fahrenheit, so we can understand the desire to take a swim. Still, walking into the water fully clothed on the afternoon of Rosh Hashana is bizarre and demands our attention.
The curious minhag, in fact, is strikingly reminiscent of a midrashic tale that is particularly relevant to Rosh Hashana. Tanchuma (Vayera) teaches:
הלך ונעשה לפניהם נהר גדול, מיד ירד אברהם לתוך המים והגיעו עד ברכיו, אמר לנעריו בואו אחרי ירדו אחריו, כיון שהגיע עד חצי הנהר הגיע המים עד צוארו באותה שעה תלה אברהם עיניו לשמים אמר לפניו רבש"ע בחרתני הודרתני ונגלית לי ואמרת לי אני יחיד ואתה יחיד על ידך יודע שמי בעולמי והעלה יצחק בנך לפני לעולה ולא עכבתי והריני עוסק בצוויך ועכשיו באו מים עד נפש אם אני או יצחק בני טובע מי יקיים מאמרך על מי יתייחד שמך, א"ל הקב"ה חייך שעל ידך יתיחד שמי בעולם, מיד גער הקב"ה את המעין ויבש הנהר ועמדו ביבשה
[Satan] went ahead and created a river in their path. When Abraham stepped into the river, it reached his knees. He ordered his young men to follow him, and they did so. But in the middle of the river the water reached his neck. Thereupon, Abraham lifted his eyes heavenward and cried out: Master of the Universe, You have chosen me; You have instructed me; You revealed Yourself to me; You have declared: I am one and You are one, and through You shall my name be made known in My world. You have ordered me: Offer, Isaac, thy son, as a sacrifice, and I did not refuse; but now, as I am about to fulfill Thy command, these waters endanger my life. If either I or my son, Isaac, should drown, who will fulfill Your decrees, and who will proclaim the Unity of Your Name? The Holy One, blessed be He, responded: Be assured that through you the Unity of My Name will be made known through the world. Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, rebuked the source of the water, and caused the river to dry up. Once again, they stood on dry land.
Avraham, the midrash teaches, was nearly drowned by a river. It was only after entering to his neck and demanding of God that He spare Avraham and his son, that Avraham was able to proceed to perform the Akeida.
For R. Yaakov Moelin, better known as Maharil, the great 14th-15th century codifier of Ashkenazic customs, this is the basis for the practice of Tashlich. By walking to the river’s edge, we recall Avraham’s self-sacrificial act of entering the river. As throughout our prayers, we ask God to recall the Akeida and remember us favorably on the Day of Remembrance. This, too, was perhaps the meaning behind the practice in Mosul: by literally entering the water, that community recalled Avraham’s self-sacrifice.
Seen from another angle, though, this midrashic tale also underscores the dangers associated with water. Unlike the many rabbinic texts that portray water as a source of material and spiritual life, here we encounter nature’s menacing side. This year, unfortunately, we have learned this lesson the hard way:
-As of yesterday afternoon, Puerto Rica, hit hard by Huricane Maria, was 100% without power and facing the prospect of widespread, as-yet-unknown devastation.
-In St. Martin, ten days after Irma turned the island into a jigsaw of ripped metal and shattered wood, residents were still struggling with an existential question: Should they cling to an island that can barely support life or start over elsewhere?
-The city of Houston suffered an estimated 200 billion dollars in damage due to Hurricane Harvey’s effects. Fundamental questions are being asked about the future of what fast grown to become the fourth most-populated city in the United States.
-The United Orthodox Synagogue in Houston was devastated for third time in as many years, with its main sanctuary submerged under 6 feet of water.
As one article put it, “Standing among the ruins of the United Orthodox Synagogue, Amy Goldstein pondered one high holiday prayer that felt hauntingly apt: ‘Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall perish by water?’”
Reminding us of our true place in the universe, over the past month, water swept up to our necks and, in many cases, very nearly submerged us.
But if Tashlich reminds us of the destructive forces of water, it also reminds us of our human capacity to pull up our pants, wade into the flood waters and make a difference.
A number of rabbinic colleagues have inspired with their example. Just a few days ago, Rabbi Gelman, rabbi of Houston's aforementioned United Orthodox Synagogue, posted on Facebook: “Looking for a dolly… moving this morning.” His home had been utterly devastated, and he, along with his wife and children, have been forced to move into a new home. Yet, while bearing the brunt of the devastation to his shul and home, he simultaneously has managed to be a rock of support for his battered community.
More inspiring news came to us from Atlanta. Rabbi Adam Starr and Rabbi Ilan Feldman, two local rabbis, partnered to host some 2,000 members of the South Florida Jewish community who had fled in advance of Irma. Fusing Jewish and Southern hospitality - a powerful combination - they provided robust meals, organized a Motzei Shabbat Unity kumzitz, and even somehow had palm trees to make the Floridians be as comfortable as possible.
But perhaps most impressive was not just the outpouring of support from Houston and throughout the US, but even from Israel. There was a time when the crises of American Jewry did not necessarily resonate loudly in Israel. Yet in this instance, Israelis, including government officials, offered financial support and medical assistance, and even offered to donate seforim sets to shuls whose collections had been ravaged.
By performing Tashlich, then, we are reminded both of our utter diminutiveness but also of our capacity to make a difference in the lives of others. And we are confronted by two types of tests. Sometimes there’s a flood, but on other occasions there’s just a relatively small pond to wade through, whether in Mosul or right here in Lower Merion. In some instances we fly down to Houston to help rebuild a home and a life, and in others we look out for a friend in school or for someone in the community who is in need but is to embarrassed to admit it publicly.
We previously referred to the article which tells us about Amy Goldstein, who pondered the question, “Who by water?” The same piece concludes: “Amy paused for a moment and scanned the sooted temple floor. ‘This is going to be a hard season,’ she said. But we'll be together.’”
As we hear the sound of the shofar, which evokes many of these same emotions, let’s be humbled by our susceptibility to the brute force of water, but also our ability to join as a community and wade through. In doing so, let’s all be together.