Earlier this week, Times Free Press staff writer Holly Leber collared me and business reporter Ellis Smith into a lunchtime adventure: to the Walnut Street Bridge to toss bread crumbs into the blue-green river below as part of the Jewish ritual known as the Tashlich ceremony.
"It symbolizes casting away of regrets, transgressions and negativity into the water," she told us.
(The newsroom was full of folks. Are my transgressions that obvious? Ellis, think she's trying to tell us something?)
We walked 100 yards or so down the wooden bridge, where about 25 others had gathered in a quiet, uncomplicated ceremony. Taking a plastic bag of torn bread pieces, about the size of small croutons, we leaned over the edge and began to surrender them into the river below.
"It's kind of crummy," said Adam Schwartz, another Tashlich participant on the bridge.
The Jewish new year 5773 began Sunday at sunset, marked by the beginning of the holiday Rosh Hashanah. This coming Wednesday is the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
"Rosh Hashanah is a time of reckoning, when one is taking stock of everything in the past year and making resolutions for the new year," said Rabbi Shaul Perlstein of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center.
"It's like a spiritual detoxification," Holly said.
The Tashlich ceremony symbolizes this.
"The concept is throwing your sins into the sea," the rabbi said.
Our plastic baggies had 30 or so pieces of bread, slightly toasted. Nearby, one pigeon began cooing a bit closer than normal. Overlooking the water, I was torn: Should I name my regrets individually with each toss of bread or just dumptruck the whole bag into the river in a lump of regret?
"I think I'm going to need more bread," Ellis said.
Man, you and me both. We should have stopped by Panera. Extra-long, triple-cheese baguettes or something.
I felt as if the bread wasn't enough. I needed to toss anvils. Or concrete blocks, something far heavier than whole wheat. When I pause and consider the regrets and transgressions of the past year, it is a long and wrinkled list.
Do you know this feeling? It's not a Hamlet-existential guilt, but the raw knowledge that sometimes — a lot of times — we mess the place up. Regret can be a bear. We regret the intangibles. We regret our clay feet and the hot-headed moments. We regret the road chosen. The road less traveled.
The Tashlich ceremony lets us confront this in a very elemental way: bread, water, me and my transgressions.
I was halfway through my bag when Schwartz — the crumb-y joke man — suggested I go to the other side of the bridge. I'd been on the upriver side, and each time I tossed bread, it would float down — about a 2- or 3-second fall — and then vanish under the bridge.
But on the downriver side of the bridge, I could see the bread float away, a long line of soggy regrets, being swept away.
Back in the newsroom, Holly gave us her extra matzo ball soup. We talked Tashlich.
"I fed the rest of my bread to the birds," Ellis said.
Rye? I mean, why?
"Regret arises from selfishness," he said. "So I gave my bread crumbs to the birds, taking a first step toward cutting down the number of regrets for next year."
Happy New Year.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...