The Psychology of Tashlich

The essential endeavor of the High Holidays is the absolution of our personal and communal guilt.  Shlepping around an albatross of guilt is decidedly not a healthy way to approach our new year. Like preventative medicine, if we can do a cleansing of our toxic build-up of shame then we can enter the new year destined for greater health. But to do that we need to somehow get rid of all that accumulated sin.


The Tashlich ritual, which means ''send out'' or ''cast away'', elegantly expresses this goal of ''sending out'' our sins. The symbolic act of tossing out crumbs somehow, almost magically, is thought to achieve that archetypal human need of cleansing ourselves of our negativity & waste. Tashlich is like Jewish ritual medicine. It''s a classic psycho-spiritual technique for inner-cleansing and health.


So what is really going on for us psychologically as we toss out our crumby sins? I would posit that the therapeutic power of tashlich is much like the psychological idea of catharsis. ''Cathartic therapy''  was introduced by Freud and Breuer in the 1890''s. It is is based on the belief that we can cure symptoms and relieve anxiety by the expression of repressed feelings and fears.


The process of psychological catharsis is 2 fold. First it involves a powerful experience of emotional expression and release. After that emotional phase comes a more cognitive one. After the release, new insights and realizations are able to emerge in the space vacated by the hitherto pent-up emotions. The ''sending-out'' of tashlich likewise recreates a symbolic release and in that voided space there is now room to birth new insights and next steps.


We see therapeutic catharsis happening very powerfully in theater. We go to see Romeo and Juliet and weep our eyes out about their tragic love tale. But the truth is, we''re really weeping over our own tragic love tales, often times without even realizing it. Sometimes it''s simply easier to weep over someone else''s pain than to access and face our own. Watching someone else''s story from a safe distance allows us to have our own much needed emotional release.


This cathartic release is achieved through a technique called ''distancing'' – that is watching from a distance as someone (or something) else goes through the very thing you are most afraid of. Distancing is a crucial, albeit ironic, tool for accessing our own emotions. For distance creates safety. This notion of distancing is inherent to the idea of tashlich, which is all about sending out from, or distancing ourselves from. We send out the crumb – we cast it away from ourselves. It''s not me, its the crumb who gets plunged into the watery abyss. It''s not me who is drowned or consumed by the fish of the deep, it''s that crumb.


It is no mistake that two of the stories we read on Yom Kippur echo with themes of distancing and catharsis. In the Haftorah reading, we hear the story of Jonah – the reluctant prophet who himself is literally cast into the depths of the sea and consumed by a fish. The connection with Tashlich couldn''t be more blatant! Jonah is tossed into the waters and consumed just like our little sin-encrusted crumbs. Both Jonah and our crumbs get plunged into the depths...They, not us, get consumed by the awaiting fish.


And then the core reading of the day is the original and literal Biblical scape-goat. We read the theatrical retelling of the biblical Yom Kippur ritual. The priest places his hands on the goat''s head and transfers the communal repository of sins onto him. This unlucky creature is then literally “cast out” to the desert, to the dark side, to be devoured by the demonic Azazel. Talk about a cathartic drama!


Our sins are simply carried away in someone else''s coat. Instead of us getting devoured by the demon, it is the sacrificial goat...or in the case of tashlich, the sacrificial crumbs. And so it is that through the act of tashlich and the ritual readings of Jonah and the scape-goat, we are actually able to rid of our sins from a safe ''distance''.


I think this is why the obscure ritual of Tashlich has so caught on. Though people don''t necessarily consciously realize the immense psychological power of such a ritual act, our unconscious selves are drawn to its cathartic drama. We ache for the safe release of our accumulated toxins of guilt. Like the Temple priests of old, we place our sins onto an external object and send them out to be devoured to oblivion...while we are able to go on to our next meal, to our next year, with a cleaner clearer conscience.


So may it be this holiday season. May we have a tashlich send off of what we no longer need and make space for a sweet and prosperous new year.