Casting into the Waters: Symbolism, Spiritual Practice and Tashlich

Judaism has interested me for many years, probably due in large part to the fact that I was raised Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) and there’s a correlation between SDAs and Jews in how they observe the Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) and their dietary restrictions (SDAs encourage and promote vegetarianism, but those who do eat meat will typically shun pork and shellfish). When you grow up in a religious tradition that is a bit outside of the box, even among other evangelical Christian groups, it’s nice to feel understood in some small part by another religious group without having to go into long explanations. This is particularly handy when you talk to fellow Gen X’ers about why you are completely unfamiliar with Friday night TV shows and Saturday morning cartoons during the pre-VCR years.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok I also had an English teacher at my SDA high school who was part Jewish and he had us read The Chosen by Chaim Potok, explaining to us about Jewish traditions and holidays. Momcat and I ended up reading all of Potok’s novels and she, too, was very interested in Judaism. Pops had a colleague whose father had been a rabbi, so she would ask him a bunch of questions about what services were like, the reasons for certain traditions (she particularly liked the use of stones on graves as a remembrance).

I think it’s all these things combined that make me very aware when the Jewish high holidays start. Tonight marks the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year. I spent this morning reading about Rosh Hashanah traditions: the blowing of the shofar, eating round challah with honey, eating apples with honey, eating part of a fish or ram’s head. Not sure I would be up for that last one, but I do like the symbolism behind it.

It’s the symbolism behind many Jewish traditions that I find the most fascinating. I don’t recall feeling like it was okay to use or wear symbols of my faith or spirituality while growing up SDA. There were baby dedications in church, and full immersion baptism once you’d studied with your pastor, but iconography and talismans weren’t used or encouraged. I don’t remember any other symbolic gestures or rituals, and in hindsight I think I needed those to help me connect to a higher power.

During this morning’s research on Rosh Hashanah, I learned about Tashlich. The basic premise, as I understand it, is to cast your sins into a body of water. After the Tashlich prayer is recited, you shake your clothes as if to shake off the sins.

Tashlich, Tashlich prayer, Rosh Hashanah

Tashlich prayers (Image courtesy Chabad.org)

But here’s what really spoke to me about this tradition (taken from Chabad.org):

The goal of Tashlich is to cast both our sins and the Heavenly prosecutor (a.k.a. the Satan) into the Heavenly sea. And when we shake our clothes after the Tashlich prayer, this is a tangible act to achieve the spiritual goal of shaking sins from our soul.

Needless to say, the physical motions near the water and fish of Tashlich are not what grant us atonement. But if we pay attention to the symbolism and apply the sincere desire to heal our relationship with G‑d as portrayed in the physical demonstrations of Tashlich, then it serves as a crucial part in the process of repenting and returning to G‑d in purity.

When I lived in Southern California, I often went to the beach to look out at the ocean and have a talk with the universe about what was bothering me. Seeing dark, deep water stretched out in front of me, with no land in sight, was symbolic to me of how vast the soul is, how there is so much going on beneath the surface that I cannot even begin to fathom, but that as I dive down into the depths of my being I can find those parts of myself that need healing, bring them to the surface, then release them back into the water. Going to the beach to process was a huge part of my spiritual growth.

What’s clear to me in this moment is that what I was doing was a form of Tashlich: casting my troubles into the deep sea, letting a higher power help me release them from my soul. I found the symbols I needed and in so doing, I found the spiritual connection and inner peace I craved. And now, every time I go to the ocean, whether the Atlantic or Pacific, I know I can find it again.

Sunset Beach, CA – my favorite place to chat with the universe. (Image courtesy californiasbestbeaches.com)

Shanah Tovah to my Jewish friends, followers and readers.

Of Fire and Hammers*

As I mentioned in the first post of my Gilmore Girls series, I was raised Seventh Day Adventist. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this Christian sect, you can get the basics on what they believe here.

I attended Adventist schools from first grade through 12th grade. Most SDA parents were given the hard sell on making the financial investment in sending their kids to Adventist schools. They could get a great education with the added bonus of a Christian environment and instruction in the Adventist faith. They would be surrounded by supportive teachers who were highly skilled and committed to shaping young minds.

What they didn’t tell my parents was that some of those teachers were misogynistic, narcissistic assholes. I still bear the scars of what my fifth grade teacher, a bitter woman who did not like that my school had moved to co-ed instruction for 5th and 6th graders, said and did during the hell year I spent in her classroom. She told us graphic stories about health and nutrition that I later discovered were wild speculation. She yelled at the girls for asking what she considered to be stupid questions about math assignments. It took therapy sessions and private tutors to help me get over my math anxiety – and, truth is, I still have it. Even after getting high grades in college statistics courses. I also don’t like participating in team sports or many physical activities because our P.E. teacher was a bully. He ended up becoming a cop, which fit his personality, got divorced and, rumor has it, was later kicked off the police force.

They also didn’t tell my parents about the birthday paddle that the principal would use on a “lucky” student at the monthly birthday parties. I never got the paddle, fortunately, but I still picture him wielding that thing and how terrified I was.

In high school – or academy, as the SDAs call it – things weren’t necessarily any better. I was fortunate that my school had some stellar teachers in the English and history departments, and my chemistry teacher was excellent, too. What my French teacher lacked in disciplinary skills and classroom management, she made up for in sweetness and compassion. But our religion teachers ranged from anti-choice zealots to Bible-thumping sexist buffoons. I remember how one teacher told us, laughing, “The Bible says when we go to heaven, we will be like the angels, and since angels are sexless, you better get some now while you can.” Those words, among others shared by him and other teachers, still resonate. Whenever week of prayer came around, which involved long presentations in the school’s chapel, I would dread it, as many of the speakers were extremely conservative, preaching of hellfire and devil music, calling us “sheep” if we went along with the crowd. One popular Adventist singer came and told us how he had been approached by Quincy Jones to sing on “We Are the World,” but when he was given the lyrics, which he found blasphemous, he said no. I still have a hard time appreciating the bigger message of that song. The call always came at the end of the week: will you go up and give your life to Jesus? I would watch my classmates walk to the front, noticing how often it was one of the more popular kids who didn’t strike me as being all that god-fearing, and I’d wonder if I should walk up, too. I never did.

Church wasn’t much different. My parents chose a home church that was more liberal than most, with some well educated, thoughtful ministers who preached insightful sermons about Adventist doctrine without heavily relying on Ellen G. White, the prophet responsible for most Adventist teachings and beliefs. Sabbath school, which was the SDA equivalent of Sunday school for the kids, was usually disjointed and full of dogma, run by adults in the church who ranged in age from 30s to 80s. Every year at Easter, one Sabbath school leader would tell her group in graphic detail about the crucifixion, crying as she demonstrated where the nails went into Jesus’s hands and feet. When I reached high school, I often stood in the hallway outside the youth room during services, talking with the other kids who hung back. None of us wanted to be there, but it was uncool to talk about why. Occasionally someone who had their license would sneak off to get snacks at 7-11 down the street.

There were many Saturday mornings I faked sleep so that Pops wouldn’t try to make me go to Sabbath school. Sometimes I convinced him to drive us to another church for the main service. He told me that once I finished academy, he wouldn’t make me go to church anymore. So when that time came, I stopped.

What’s funny, though, is that for as much as I fought the religious dogma, I tried to belong. One Christmas I asked for a small Bible and hymnal set, and I still have it, all zipped into its matching black leather case, the Bible full of paper slips marking verses used in Sabbath school. I was dutiful in my Bible classes at school, and there was a time when my two closest non-SDA friends were fighting and I went and got my Bible.  I wanted to find answers within the church, because I’d been taught from infancy that we were the true religion, that we followed the teachings of the Bible. I believed all SDAs were infallible, and that if someone did commit a sin, they would be washed clean in the blood of Christ.

But as I grew older, the truth could no longer be hidden. I heard stories of molestation, rape, infidelity, betrayal and manipulation, all at the hands of Adventist church members. I watched my father cry when a family member was hospitalized and held him as he sobbed. I learned the truth of my mother’s barely concealed resentment of certain family members for their acts of selfishness and cruelty. It became clear to me that being a member of the church didn’t make you a better person, nor did it make you immune to suffering or hardship.

So I wrote poems and journal entries about faith and providence, about prayer and suffering. I started asking questions. I investigated other faiths. I attended Catholic masses and Episcopalian services. Once I moved to California, I began reading more New Age and metaphysical books by Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay, Caroline Myss. I read about astrology, Tarot, numerology, crystals. I found peace and comfort in reading Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and visiting the gardens at his Self-Realization Fellowship shrine in L.A. Through developing a spiritual practice that was very different from the religious one I was raised in, I finally got myself to a place where I could give and receive love and compassion to all regardless of their faith. I saw the difference that being spiritual made in my life and, occasionally, I would tell people about it.

But I found that the sense of not belonging never leaves you if it’s in the very core of your being. If you never deal with those feelings of low self-worth, they will rise up in forms you don’t expect, in words that wound deeply. Accusations of being spiritually dangerous or “of the devil” will come out of the mouths of people you love and care about. It happened to my father when he decided to pursue law school instead of the seminary, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was still hurt. It didn’t matter how kind or compassionate I was. I would still be judged and found lacking.

I make my living as a writer. I understand the power of words. I have learned, both professionally and personally, the importance of choosing my words well and that there are times when it is best to remain silent. I can think of many times when I should have been silent instead of spewing words that were a hammer, pounding my beliefs and opinions into others. But I can also think of times when my words, carefully chosen, could have been the fire that needed to burn in someone’s heart and help them find peace.

I write all of this now because it is time I spoke my full truth. It is time I admit to being deeply wounded whenever someone tells me my spiritual practice is not in alignment with God’s plan, or that something I have said or done is the devil’s work. As much as I want to speak words of angry fire or pounding hammers whenever I hear these things, I am going to choose love: a pure burning love that strikes softly but leaves a lasting mark. Because choosing hate hurts me just as much, if not more, than having it given to me.

*”Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Jeremiah 23:29 (NIV)