Casting Away the Sins of Indifference: Reverse Tashlich and the Environmental, Spiritual New Year

“Let us cast away the sin of indifference so that we may be sensitive to the sufferings of others and responsive to the needs of our people everywhere.

Let us cast away the sins of pride and arrogance, so that we may worship God and serve his purpose in humility and truth.”

The Jewish calendar starts from the beginning every year in the fall. The new year is marked by a month full of holidays. The first two are marked by the theme of repentance and forgiveness. Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “Head of the Year,” is known as the day in which God remembers all of the actions which any human being has done in the past year and measures their merit. Yom Kippur, which literally means “Day of Atonement,” is the day in which the sins and transgressions of humanity are either atoned for or not, resulting in an ultimate seal of each human in either the book of life or death. In between the two holidays, there are 10 days which are considered the 10 days of Repentance. During those days, religious Jews will perform additional prayers in addition to actively repairing fractured relationships in their lives. Part of this process includes the ritual activity called “Tashlich.” Coming from the Hebrew word “to toss,” Tashlich is the activity of throwing bread into a body of water to feed to the fish. The bread is meant to represent all of the sins which we have committed in the previous year, and by throwing them away, we actively clean ourselves in preparation for the upcoming year.

Recently, the organization Tikkun HaYam, or “Repair the Sea,” began the initiative of “Reverse Tashlich.” In the ritual of Reverse Tashlich, a group of people go and clean up litter around a body of water. In my role as the leader of the Jewish Climate Initiative at Princeton, I ran a Reverse Tashlich on the Friday before Yom Kippur in which seven students went to clean the streams of Carnegie Lake in Princeton. There, we found and disposed of many micro plastics in addition to larger pieces of litter seemingly from construction sites in the area.

After spending half an hour diligently cleaning up the streams of their extensive litter, the group sat down on a patch of grass and began to study the texts which traditionally accompany the ritual of Tashlich. We began with a quote from the book of Micah, chapter 7 verse 19: “[God] will take us back in love, quashing our iniquities. You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.” We discussed how even though our action seems to be the opposite of littering into the sea, we framed our action as a physical manifestation of the quashing of our own iniquities. We framed the idea that our sins in actuality act as the garbage, littering the water, which is understood in the Jewish tradition as a source of love, life, and a means of connection to God. We prayed to God to allow us to be able to further connect with God by the means of removing these sins from the site.

We then shifted to read a text provided through Sefaria, a major Jewish source website to further frame our clean-up. Among many lines which provided direction and intentionality to the action we had completed, one which we discussed at length was “Let us cast away the sin of indifference so that we may be sensitive to the sufferings of others and responsive to the needs of our people everywhere.” This cleanup felt to us as one which we actively performed to combat these feelings. Part and parcel of both the repentance process and environmental activism is this level of intentionality, one which forces every individual to think about the far reaching extent of their actions and the suffering of others which they have caused. Through disposing of these harmful substances, we established that the manner by which we were to practice the casting away of indifference was by cleaning up environmental mistakes.

We then read “Let us cast away the sins of pride and arrogance, so that we may worship God and serve his purpose in humility and truth.” As the conversation mediator, I felt this line was important in terms of understanding the true limits of our power to prevent the suffering of others that we had previously discussed. We humans must rise against the suffering of others who are harmed by or may suffer from the consequences of our actions. However, seven Princeton undergraduates on a fall afternoon can’t ensure the vast change much needed to mitigate the climate crisis and environmental catastrophe. We must understand that even through collective rejection of indifference, there are forces outside of us which may not allow our goals to be achieved. Yet, that does not deny our impetus to change ourselves, others, and the world.

In an increasingly ideologically fractured world, our job as climate advocates and activists is to walk that fine line between collective responsibility towards all forms of suffering on this planet—be that by humans, animals, or ecosystems—and humility. We must cast away the trash we see, the drilling we support, the negative effects of our diets, the energy we consume. In the same vein, we must reject our arrogance. If we succeed in doing so, we will ultimately collectively inscribe our world into the book of life.

Davi Frank – RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Princeton University

RCC Fellow Davi Frank is a sophomore at Princeton University studying Religion with minors in Environmental Studies, Near Eastern Studies, and Arabic Language and Culture. He is involved in various campus sustainability efforts, including leading both the Green Dining Initiative and Jewish Climate Initiative in addition to being an active member of Divest Princeton and the Conservation Society.