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Lake Michigan Tashlikh

On not putting down a ritual until it does its work

This past year was an emotionally challenging one for me. On Rosh Hashana I drove alone to Lake Michigan, as I usually do, to perform tashlikh—the act of tossing bread into a body of moving water to symbolically cast off one’s sins. But I left the lake feeling that I needed to return, so I went again the next day. Oddly, something was still missing for me; I hadn’t actually thrown out what I needed to. On the day before Yom Kippur, I found myself at the lake again. Whoever heard of doing tashlikh three times when our tradition enjoins us to do it once? What was going on with me?

It is not really “sins” that I attempt to throw away during tashlikh—that word doesn’t fit my failures. What I try to throw away are my struggles as a human being. I get selfishly involved in my own life and forget to call friends. I’m stubborn and won’t admit when I’m wrong. I hold grudges. I don’t let go of wounds and disappointments. I set unrealistic expectations which lead me to feel let down by those I love. I don’t forgive myself, and I certainly don’t forgive others. I allow anger and guilt to eat away at me. The word “sins” isn’t helpful to me at all. What I’m throwing into Lake Michigan are my shortcomings, my shame, the places where I’m relationally stuck. Even thinking this way helps me feel lighter.

Though I could do tashlikh with my congregation or my family, I always choose to do it alone. I’m an introvert. I want the quiet and peace, the opportunity to form meditative space. Although I usually do my “serious thinking” walking or standing on the beach and only afterwards throw in my chunks of bread, this year I just start throwing pieces of bread in the air, distracted by how many birds swoop down or trot over to get them. Most of the birds are small and friendly, already busy walking up and down the beach. I watch a Mama Bird squawk and chase her little ones into the water. She’s bossy; wherever I toss my crumbs, she gets to them first. I try to throw bread wherever she isn’t; I enjoy saving the underdog—or underbird.

Inevitably, I start thinking about my own mother. I believe that I do successfully honor her and care for her, but I frequently find myself hurt by her and angered. Though I am 64 years old, I still struggle to protect myself— the underbird—when I’m in my mother’s presence. The Mama Bird on the beach just wants to grab snippets of bread; my own Mama wants to grab my whole self.

After awhile, an Asian couple and their elderly mother walk down the beach, and I find myself thinking that I like the way the mother is walking: close, but separate, allowing the couple to be a couple—so different from the way my mother clings to me. I offer them bread to feed the birds and they’re delighted. The husband holds a camera, motions for me to pose with his wife and the birds, counts 1-2-3. The wife says, “Thank you, thank you,” effusively, perhaps the only English phrase she knows.

My goodness. I have just spent a full hour thinking about my mother, tossing and tossing little chunks of bread. She’s 94. It’s way past time for me to let go of my “stuckness,” the pain I’ve carried way too long. She is who she is. With others, she’s friendly and smart, well-informed, outgoing, meeting the challenges of living with strangers in a retirement home. With me, she’s different: always demanding and judgmental, displeased with me, mad. She wanted me to be different than I was: to be popular, not a bookworm. To be thin and beautiful, not who I was: plump and near-sighted, thoughtful, studious, verbal, bright, driven to achieve. Even when I tried to be what she wanted, I disappointed her. In truth, she didn’t like me.

I pull off little pieces of bread and toss them, pull and toss, pull and toss. I need to let go of this pain. She wanted a different daughter; I wanted a different Mama Bird.

What will happen, I ask myself, if I finally let go of the pain of feeling unloved and accept her as she is? I am surprised by the words that jump to mind: “The cord will crumble. The cord between us. And she will die.” What an odd thought! Has my connection to her—my cord of anger—kept her alive? I have to face it: She will die as she is. Can I give up the anger? Toss it in the lake?

I crumble the anger and toss, crumble and toss. I am probably not crumbling the anger itself, but I realize that I could. I do feel lighter.

My hands are empty. I have crumbled a complete loaf of bread.

The next day, I find myself returning to the lake. I’ve never done this before—felt driven to perform tashlikh twice. As I approach the beach, it seems like every seagull from the entire Lake Michigan shoreline is swarming around me. Mama Bird must have spread the word: really good bread here. But the birds fly so close to my head that they frighten me. Several swoop down and peck at my hair. This has never happened before. I drop the loaf and rush back to the car—without bread, but still with my shortcomings.

Perhaps it’s a sign: I’m not ready. I should come back when I’m ready.

A week passes. it is the day before Yom Kippur. Early in the morning, I head to the lake. Instead of walking directly to the beach—as I did the previous two times—I stop and find myself sitting on a bench. I’m alone, totally alone. I let the thoughts and feelings I’ve considered for days well up. To my surprise, with my hand on my heart, I begin sobbing— sobbing about my relationship with each of my children, my husband, my friends, my inability to take away their hurts, to make life better for each of them. I was trained to take care of my mother, and despite years of therapy, I still feel the need to caretake everyone I love. I have to stop myself, remind myself to keep boundaries. It’s hard, so hard. Their lives are theirs, not mine. Theirs, not mine, I tell myself. My love can’t erase their pain.

I’m sobbing because of the challenging hands life has dealt us: a mother critically ill my entire life; a horrific divorce that continues to reverberate in the lives of my children; much of my family wired for clinical anxiety and depression; a step-daughter with multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease; a new granddaughter born with a cleft lip and palette and three surgeries in this, her first year of life.

I’m sobbing with the pain of my friends’ lives, one struggling to speak after a stroke—his wife exhausted from the stress— another younger than I bravely facing death. I’m sobbing because no one can take away my pain. I’m sobbing because sometimes pain just hurts.

In the past, I cast away hateful, vengeful feelings. But the deep feelings that now bring tears are not retaliative ones. They are ones that want to counter helplessness. How little control I have! I feel this with a piercing newness. I’m sobbing until I stand up and walk to the beach and begin crumbling my sweet Sabbath challah, crumbling and tossing, tossing and crumbling. I throw away my insane expectations, for myself and for others. I toss to give those I love back their lives, to take back my own life to tend.

I wait for the birds, but not a single one comes. Fact is stranger than fiction. I expect flocks of birds, convocations, congregations of them. Not one bird appears. Not one. I can’t even control whether or not birds come to eat my challah! I pitch streams of bread, letting go my pain, my pain and my shortcomings. Never have I been to Lake Michigan for tashlikh and not drawn a single bird. Not one bird in the four-state area wants to taste what I let go.

That’s all right.

I do feel lighter. I crumble and toss, crumble and toss…until I no longer crumble.

Barbara Stock is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Evanston, IL.