During my months of Christian church-going, I came to think of a sin as something a person did, an act perpetrated despite the knowledge that every aspect of nature, including all of humanity and even one’s own self, is an integral part of a greater whole. I understood a sin to be a deed of destruction, something we do (knowingly or not) to chip away at our own—or anyone else’s—ability to thrive.
It wasn’t until I experienced the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah that I began to grasp how a sin may also be the opposite of this: a thing we fail to do. It could be an egregious error such as not reaching out to, or even noticing, a person in need. It also could be as subtle as being too preoccupied to properly appreciate the natural beauty around us.
While these two versions of sin seem different, they actually stem from the same source: a failure to grant an element of creation the care and honor it deserves.
At the Rosh Hashanah service at the Unitarian church, one of the prayers we recited together in English centered on the theme of listening. Written by contemporary Rabbi Jack Reimer, it included the lines “…we hear the voices of our friends—or our neighbors…our family…our children—but we do not appreciate their sounds of urgency: ‘Notice me…help me…care about me.’ We hear—but do we really listen?” As I mulled over these words, I felt my heart grow heavy. For days, they followed me around like the ghosts of my past.
If I had been sticking strictly to custom, the next day—the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah when the shofar blasts were fresh in my mind—I would have made my way to a natural body of water to perform the ritual of “tashlikh.” This is the symbolic “casting away” of one’s sins from the previous year. Many Jews who live near the coast will go to the sea and toss bread crumbs or pebbles, items representing their misdeeds, into the waves.
It seems to me that once the crumbs or pebbles hit the water, you would lose track of them quickly. Knowing how rapidly they will be consumed by the vast ocean somehow makes the sin-digging process more palatable and less overwhelming. Since I am hours from the coast, I thought about approximating this act in the nearest natural body of water to me, which is a creek that flows through the center of town. This being my first Rosh Hashanah, I had many more months to review besides the previous 12; I would need an entire loaf of bread, perhaps several.
I imagined hauling a satchel of crumbs to the small bridge downtown. Theoretically, the sins dumped there would eventually run into the ocean, but I shuddered at the thought of that heap lingering; Rosh Hashanah comes well before the snow-melt makes the water rush. I decided to hold off: I needed additional time to review my past, perhaps to narrow my catalogue of sins or to find a body of water where the sin-to-H2O ratio would be more favorable.
Before the sun set on Rosh Hashanah, I knew where my journey to make amends would take me: Los Angeles, the city to which I moved as a pre-teen. Luckily, a visit there would give me access to the vast Pacific Ocean.