The custom of praying late at night prior to Rosh HaShanah (slikhot-Saturday night September 5th this year), and the custom of throwing away sins (Tashleekh) following Rosh HaShanah (September 14th this year), both originated during the late Middle Ages.
Our ancestors added these new customs to the traditional observances of the High Holy Days because the larger Jewish community realized that while everyone needed to forgive others, many people also needed to forgive themselves.
Slikhot was added to stimulate each person’s ideal desire to repent and to reconcile with both God and our fellow human beings, thus making the New Year truly a Shanah Tovah- a better year than last year.
Tashleekh was added because reality teaches us that while everyone can repent, it takes two to effect a reconciliation. While repentance is always part of atonement, reconciliation does not always occur.
Sometimes the scars and painful impressions made on us by others in past years need to be washed away like footprints in the sand.
Thus, the Talmud (Yoma 85a-b) teaches us that if a person has made three separate attempts at reconciliation, and been rebuffed each time, that is sufficient for God to forgive, even if the other person never does forgive. And if God forgives you, you should forgive yourself.
Yet many good and idealistic people keep trying to fix bad relationships, often exposing themselves, and sometimes others, to new hurts and rejections. They need to understand that without the co-operation of another person, some hurts and bad feelings cannot be healed.
The only remedy is Tashleekh; to cast them off, to wash them away and let them go; and to begin again with new opportunities and new people. The following midrash is an excellent example:
Her mother once gave her a box of nails and told her that every time she lost her temper or insulted somebody she must hammer a nail into a large tree in the back yard.
The first day the girl hit 9 nails into the tree. Over the next few weeks, as she learned to control her anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled. She discovered it was easier to hold her temper than to drive those nails into the tree.
Finally the day came when the girl didn’t lose her temper at all. She told her mother about it and the mother suggested that the girl now pull out one nail for each day that she was able to hold her temper. The days passed. Finally, she told her mother that all the nails were gone.
The mother took her daughter by the hand and led her to the tree. She said, “You have done well, my daughter, but look at all the holes in the tree. The tree will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like these.
You can put a knife in a person and draw it out. It does not matter how many times you say I’m sorry, a wound is still there. A verbal wound is almost as bad as a physical one.”
“How can I fix the tree?” asked the girl. “Will it have to remain damaged forever?”
“Yes and no” said the mother. “Our Rabbis say that if the tree is still alive, and responds to the way you have changed, it too can change and heal itself. If the tree is dead to the possibility of your repentance it will carry its scars onward.
Either way the tree will never be as it was before, but it doesn’t have to become perfect to be a good tree. If you do your part and change, and the tree does its part in response, God will do something wonderful.
God will promote a healing that will make you and the tree better then you were before. This process is called Atonement. Atonement means that the changes that come about from repentance and forgiveness lead people to higher levels of relationship than was the case before.”
“What happens if the tree doesn’t respond?” asked the girl. “Can I ever make it whole?”
“You should try on three different occasions,” said the mother, “but if the tree remains dead to you even after you have changed, YOU can’t force it to heal.
In that case you should help another tree somewhere else. There are always lots of tree that need care, and whenever you nourish a tree God will make something wonderful happen. That is the miracle of Atonement.
God always responds to our attempts to change by helping us change; and God always responds to our change by giving us new and wonderful opportunities for Atonement.
This is why we have a Day of Atonement ten days after the beginning of every Rosh HaShanah – New Year; so the New Year will be a better one than the last one.