Can we really throw our sins into the sea?
At the end of the haftarah for Shabbos Shuva, we read from sefer Micha (7:18-20) the section we recite at Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah. We say, “Hashem will once again show us mercy, He will subdue our evils. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
Let us understand this on a deeper level.
There is a secret about teshuva as expressed by Rabbeinu Yona in a short essay entitled “Sod Hateshuva – The Secret of Teshuva.”
What exactly is this secret? Rabbeinu Yona quotes Yechezkhel HaNavi (18:30-31) who tells us that Hashem Yisborach wants us to return to Him by throwing off all our sins and imagining ourselves to be without any transgressions. We must feel that we have a lev chadash and ruach chadasha, a new heart and a new spirit.
Of course, this does not mean that Hashem overlooks all sin and forgives us without our regret and apology. We need to fulfill all of the steps of teshuva. However, the first phase of change, Rabbeinu Yona tells us, is to perform Tashlich.
“Yashlich kol pesha’av asher asah, veyaaseh atzmo k’ilu ki hayom nolad v’ein b’yado lo zechus velo chovah, vezeh hayom techilas maasav” – We must imagine ourselves as if we were just born and have no merits or demerits.
This is why we go to a body of water on Rosh Hashanah and perform the Tashlich ceremony. We are trying to create a feeling of throwing away our sins and starting over. If our teshuva is real, if we feel sincere regret and have resolved to become better, Hashem will look at us as new people. We must look at ourselves in the same way, throwing off the guilt-laden burden of our sins. As Rabbeinu Yona says in Sefer Shaarei Teshuva (1:11) regarding the component of teshuva called abandoning the sin, azivas hacheit: We need to leave the derech, the general path of sin, to redefine ourselves and our way of life. Rabbeinu Yona uses the word derech many times in this section, indicating that we need to see ourselves anew, in general. We need to leave the old path and forge a new one.
In contrast, Dovid HaMelech (59:5) writes about his sin with Batsheva as follows: “Vechatsai negdi samid – My sin is always with me.” This seems to be the direct opposite of what Rabbeinu Yona and Yechezkhel HaNavi suggest. Why didn’t Dovid cast off his sin when doing teshuva? Why did he always keep it with him?
The answer, Rabbi Balsam suggests, was that Dovid kept the sin in the back of his mind at all times so as to avoid repeating his mistakes, but did not let it define him and, most importantly, he didn’t let it hamper him. He never allowed himself to feel that because he sinned in the past he would sin again in the future.
The sin was “negdi,” opposite him, but was not him; the sin was a separate, distant memory and act which did not weigh him down. As educators tell us, when necessary we must let a child know that he did something bad, but never that he is a “bad boy.” Dovid knew that he transgressed and wanted to remind himself of it at regular intervals, but he never let himself feel so guilty that he would think change was impossible.
Kayin, on the other hand, failed at teshuva because he couldn’t let go of his sin and always defined himself as a murderer. Kayin said, “Gadol avoni m’neso, my sin is too great to bear!” (Bereishis 4:13). He was unable to perform Tashlich and see himself as a new and changed person. To perform teshuva, we need to forgive ourselves, and Kayin was unable to do that.
One would think that experiencing thoughts of repentance and return would keep us from sinning ever again; however, it doesn’t quite work that way. This, Rabbi Abraham Twerski says, is part of the meaning of the words in Shema, “asher Anochi metzavcha hayom, that which I command you today.” Hashem wants us to focus on today and only today. Then, when the next day arrives, we focus on that day, and so on, day by day. Teshuva can really happen if we live life this way. This adds a greater insight into Tehillim 90:12, where we ask Hashem “limnos yameinu kein hoda, to teach us how to count our days” so we can grow properly.
The pasuk (Mishlei 10:27) says that those who fear Hashem have days added to their lives but the wicked lose years of their lives. Why is the term “days” used for tzaddikim while “years” is used for the wicked? Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch answers that to be a tzaddik one needs to think in terms of days. If a person tries to focus today on upcoming years of accomplishment, he will most likely not reach his goals and may even become wicked. This is what is meant by “Wisdom lies before an understanding person, but a fool’s eyes are directed to the ends of the earth” (Mishlei 17:24).
Rashi explains that a fool concentrates on the end goal, whereas a wise person thinks of the here and now, the process. He thinks only about what lies right in front of him and that is the wise path. Rashi cites a midrash which teaches that the fool says, “How can I learn Torah? Each tractate contains 30 or so chapters! It’s too much for me to handle!” But the wise man says, “Today I’ll learn two chapters and tomorrow another two chapters and so on.”
As we perform Tashlich, we must passionately resolve to see ourselves as new people who only want to grow closer to Hashem.