“Mom, What’s a Sin?”
by Dani Shapiro
February 9, 2010
acob ran ahead of us toward the wooded banks of the Shepaug River, holding a hunk of bread in his small hands. There were perhaps twenty of us – mostly people I didn’t know – at this Connecticut nature preserve. We must have been an odd site; an assortment of adults and children, dressed more nicely than a walk in the country would seem to call for, carrying bits of bread.
It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and many years had passed since I had last set foot in a synagogue, much less participated in this ritual called tashlich, which follows the long Rosh Hashanah service. Tamara, the spiritual leader (not a rabbi) of this loosely formed coalition of Jews, gathered us around her with quiet authority. She passed around copies of the tashlich verse from Samuel 7:6 and we read aloud:
Who is like You, God, who removes iniquity and overlooks transgerssion of the remainder of His inheritance … He will be merciful to us … He will cast them into the depths of the sea.
Which is why we were there – to cast our sins into a moving body of water by tossing our bits of bread into the slow-moving trickle until it carried them away. I pictured small, sodden, radioactive morsels floating downstream.
I joined Jacob at the riverbank. In the car, I had tried to explain what we were doing but I hadn’t done a very good job of it.
“What’s a sin?” Jacob now asked.
It was one of those Mommy-needs-to-get-it-right questions. There had been so many of them, lately; Where is God? Does he exist? How come I can’t see him? Can he see me?
“Sin is a big word,” I said. “Why don’t we think of it as things we’d like to do better in the coming year.”
Even as the words came out of my mouth, they felt inadequate. I was play-acting the park of a spiritually inclined wife and mother who had cajoled her husband and son into their good clothes so that we could enact a ritual so distant from our daily lives that we might as well have been kneeling at a Buddhist temple or Catholic church.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the sharp scent of the river.
With a single word, I felt hot tears backing up. I was instantly lost in the place I always found myself during the rare times I summoned up the nerve to reach back and grasp for a bit of the tradition I grew up with. Numb, weepy, deeply alive, fighting it, fighting myself and the long line of ancestors waiting their turn, there to tell me that no matter how I’d like to think otherwise, this day was important.
I tossed a few crumbs in.
I want to do better.
I wanted to be a better mother, wife, writer, teacher, person, member of society. I wanted to eat better, have more patience, drink more water. There was no end to my desire for self-improvement. But was this what I meant?
Jacob squeezed his eyes shut and tossed the first bit of bread into the water.
“Can you tell what I wished for, Mommy?”
“Oh, honey, it’s not supposed to be a – ”
But then I stopped. What was the desire to let something go, if not a wish?
“I wished for that remote-controlled helicopter,” Jacob said.
I looked at my little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in his navy blue blazer and khakis. Please. The word came to me once more. It seemed to emerge from some deep and hollow cavern. I threw my last morsel of bread away, then turned from the river.