Call and Response: Journeys in UU Lifespan Faith Development

Tashlich and the River

By Gail Forsyth-Vail

river photo pedro j perez morguefile_14410912277vsc

river photo pedro j perez morguefile_14410912277vsc

Fifteen years ago, when I was the religious educator in North Andover, Massachusetts, we held a tashlich ritual as part of marking the Jewish Days of Awe. People of all ages put bread crumbs in bowls of water to recognize the actions they were sorry for and to symbolize a new start.

Tashlich ceremonies require that the crumbs be put in running water. That afternoon, I put the bowls in my car and headed to a spot I knew on the bank of the Merrimack River, very near my childhood home. I brought the bowls of water and crumbs to the river, said a few words, and then emptied the bowls into the current. Dozens of little minnows appeared to eat the crumbs! Where once the river was so polluted that there was no life but E. coli, here were fishes. I looked up, tears in my eyes, and saw the river again as if for the first time. It is tidal at that place, several miles in from the ocean. The smell: brackish water, slightly salty, but clean. Boats on the water. Reflections of trees on its surface. Some debris, but no sewage. A river being restored.

In that moment, I realized the wisdom of the Days of Awe, and the turning, the change of heart, that had allowed people up and down the Merrimack River to repair this part of the world. It required a collective commitment, and a collective new beginning.

When we think of being sorry, making amends, and beginning again, our focus is often on our individual lives and experiences. But sometimes what needs to be acknowledged is collective damage. We may even need to take responsibility for and repair wrongs we inherit from those who came before. So it is with the damage done by pollution and ill-use of the natural environment and the beings that share it with us. The work of repair and restoration must be collective as well as individual, spanning ages and generations. For me, the story of the river near my home offers a beacon of hope and an example of what we can do, together.

Next Steps!

Discover resources from the UUA to help you and your group or congregation start or strengthen your involvement in climate and environmental justice efforts.

Engage your congregation in local water clean-up and preservation efforts. Find program and project ideas in the multigenerational Tapestry of Faith curriculum, Gather the Spirit.

Learn about the history and meaning of the Jewish tashlich ritual from a short article by Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer.

About the Author

Gail Forsyth-Vail

Gail Forsyth-Vail, a credentialed religious educator, master level, is the author or developmental editor of several UU history curricula and resources. Before retiring, she served as interim director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Lifespan Faith Engagement Office.


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