Although I have lived in Monsey for most of my life, I am not a Monsey native. My formative years were spent living in the legendary Lower East Side of Manhattan. Until I was eight years old, we lived on the second floor of 550G Grand Street, near where it intersects with East Broadway.
I have many wonderful memories from my years living there. Gus’s Pickles were a constant at our Shabbos table, as were Chinese noodles purchased in nearby Chinatown. Through first grade I attended Mesivta Tiferes Jerusalem, and our family davened in the Poilishter Shteeble. But best of all was the fact that both sets of my grandparents lived just a few minutes away, in nearby apartment buildings. It was a special treat that when we would come to shul every Shabbos, we would daven alongside my Sabbah, a’h.
One of the many memorable experiences of living on the Lower East Side was saying tashlich near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge on the first day of Rosh Hashana. It seemed that the entire Jewish community, which included hundreds of people, was there.
As a child I was sure that it was our saying of tashlich that caused the East River to be so murky and polluted. After all, the river contained all of the discarded sins of all of Manhattan on one side, and all of Brooklyn and Queens on the other.
Another special experience of those years was spending Shabbos with our Sabbah and Savta. They lived on the fifth floor of their apartment building. On the way home from shul, we would race up the flights of stairs urging Sabbah – who did quite well for a man of his age – to come quicker.
One of the highlights of those Shabbosim was lying down in Sabbah’s bed when he would read us a book. The book I remember him reading to us most was Scuffy.
Scuffy was a toy tugboat who grew bored circling around the bathtub of his young owner. He dreamed of traveling the open waterways in freedom. On one occasion he somehow managed to wiggle away from his owner in a small pond. The pond flowed all the way until it reached a river. Scuffy was enjoying every minute, including the views along the way, until the river became more raging and he neared the vast and frightening ocean. At the last moment before the water thrust him into the ominous endless ocean, a hand grabbed the terrified little toy tugboat by its stack. It was the young boy who owned Scuffy. Only from then on Scuffy was only too happy to be back in the bathtub, circling around and doing what he was made to do.
As a young boy that story put me to sleep. Reflecting on that story now however, made me think of it from a different perspective. In certain ways the story of Scuffy is our story. Chazal relate that the yeitzer hara does not immediately goad a person to commit a serious transgression. Rather, he suggests that the person push his boundaries slightly, to test out the waters. He convinces us to do things that aren’t really wrong per se, but may simply be something that make us feel somewhat uncomfortable. But the current only becomes stronger, until the person soon finds himself being rushed along the flow, no longer able to stop himself. The once pleasant streams have flowed into uncontrollable raging rivers, which lead to the ominous oceans.
But there is a hand that reaches out to grab us and reel us in before we become completely lost. In the waning moments of Yom Kippur, during the climactic prayer of Neilah, we declare: “You give a hand to sinners.” There is hope for return!
Perhaps that is part of the reason why the custom is to recite tashlich by a body of flowing water. It reminds us of the progression of sin and how easily we can become swept away. At the same time, it reminds us that there is a force stronger than all the rivers and oceans, i.e., the Being that created repentance even before he created those bodies of water.
We stand before the water with a feeling of meekness and humility and begin the prayer, “Who is like You, One who bears sin, and overlooks transgression…”
Therein lies our hope, if we will only allow that outstretched hand to embrace us.