When Abraham made his trip to sacrifice his son Isaac on Rosh Hashanah, Satan tried several times to deter him, once placing a river in his path. Abraham and his followers marched into the river and after praying to God, the water dried up.
It is this moment that inspires Tashlich, a ritual performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah during which verses are read next to a body of water with the intention of casting away sins. It is, according to Chabad.org, a commemoration of Abraham’s self-sacrifice.
In modern times, trips to an actual river may not be as common as praying beside a pond or fountain. But for many, Tashlich remains an important practice during the High Holidays.
“We come there to arouse God’s mercy or compassion for us,” said Rabbi Hillel Baron, the co-director of the Lubavitch Center in Howard County.
These days Baron and congregants of the Lubavitch Center gather around the storm management pond on the synagogue’s property. The pond has been stocked with fish, which eat up the breadcrumbs that are cast into the water.
Some people abstain from using breadcrumbs, Baron said, for “an interesting halachic reason.”
“It is questionable whether someone is allowed to feed fish or animals that don’t belong to the person on Shabbos or the holidays,” said Baron. “It’s fully permissible and it’s your responsibility to feed the animals if they belong to you, but if the animals are ownerless then it’s a question.”
By purchasing the fish for the pond themselves, Baron said, the question has been eliminated.
Fish serve as a symbol for holiness because they produce many offspring. They also lack eyelids, a representation of the omnipotent supervision of God.
Although the stormwater management pond is a legal necessity for the synagogue’s campus, its presence provides multiple ways to serve the community and the environment.
Earlier this year, incoming senior at Mount Hebron High School Jacob L. Witlin built a dock with railings and built-in seating overlooking the pond as his project to become an Eagle Scout. In addition to serving as a convenient place for congregants to gather for Tashlich, Witlin’s dock serves year-round as a place for kids from camp, preschool or Hebrew school to have an outdoor classroom.
For Baron, Tashlich is about repentance but also compassion, which he describes as “the combination of judgment, knowing and recognizing shortcomings.”
At a time when people tend toward self-criticism, Baron says compassion should be directed inward as well.
“The same way we ask God to be compassionate, we need to be compassionate,” said Baron. “We need to elicit and call out from within ourselves compassion for ourselves.”