Autumn, Renewal, and the Power of Positive Ritual

Autumn Tree

What’s your favorite season?  Autumn is mine.  I get a thrill as the dusty leaves of summer fall away to reveal the structure of my maple tree, one branch grown larger, one pruned away, but still the tree, older, stronger, ready for renewal.

Renewal is on my mind this week because we’re right in the middle of the Jewish high holy days, the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement.  I’m not terribly observant, but I take these holidays seriously because they’re about second chances because I’m keenly aware that the number of second chances I can grab gets smaller with each racing year.  I'm grateful for this annual positive ritual, reminding me to pause, reflect, and start over again, hopefully from a wiser place.  

In today's post I share how I use these positive rituals to shape my goals for the coming year.

Part 1: Feed What Gets in Your Way to the Fish

The  ritual starts on Rosh Hashanah with tashlich, the casting away of our shortcomings to begin a fresh new year. In her post on Ritualwell, Janice Rous imagines tashlich as "a letting go ceremony of unneeded parts of ourselves, patterns that no longer serve us.”

So this year I decided to write a list of my unneeded parts, and following the traditional tashlich ritual, toss breadcrumbs into moving water alive with fish. Why fish? There are several speculations, but my favorite is that just as fish can be caught in a fisherman’s net, so we are caught in our net of judgment, beating ourselves and others up about how we/they/the world should be. The more we struggle, the more we're stuck; the more stuck, the harder it is to swim free, caught in our own web.

I sat along a local stream to make my list. “What am I tolerating?” I asked.  “What am I still beating myself up for? What am I ready to shed? What no longer serves me?”

  • My addiction to sugar, I wrote.
  • Office clutter
  • Self-doubt
  • Thinking I know better than
  • Accepting “good enough”
  • Not feeling "good enough"
  • Shame
  • Excessive earnestness
  • Waiting for the right time to do the right thing

I tossed and the crumbs drifted away.  I pictured the crumbs sustaining the fish on their way to the sea. That felt good. Then it occurred to me, “OK. Now what? What do I do about that ice cream taunting me back home in the freezer?” Making my list of regrets was easy. Facing the ice cream is hard.

Part II: Give it to the Goat


I stared at the Hagen Daz carton, Rosh Hashanah passed and Yom Kippur not yet here. “Perhaps I could give it to the goat,” I thought.  I remembered a Yom Kippur story about sending a goat off into the wilderness. “Just tie all the sugar, clutter, and self-doubt in the house to the goat and send her off into the Sierra Nevada.”  Not being religious, I had to ask Mr. Google if this was possible.

There is was. Leviticus 16. It turns out the scapegoat carries away the burden of sins against God. But everything worldly?  No such luck. We have to do tushuvah.

Tushuva is our second chance. As Rabbi Toba Spitzer explains, this means turning “towards my best self, embracing and challenging the negative that is within me while at the same time realizing that it does not define who I am.” This is hard work. Good intentions are not enough.

Part III:  It takes a Shtetl*

There is a reason that tushuva is done on Yom Kippur, the one day of the year when even the most secular Jew is likely to be in synagogue. At least once a year it feels good to look around the packed room and see others who are in the same boat, not perfect, but pledging to do the work necessary to be better this year- to turn tushuva into tikkun – repairing and healing the world.
Tushuva, that most personal of self-reflection, is put in action through community. We need support  to make change in small and large ways.

  • To put the ice cream scoop down and reach for the apple.
  • To put the self-doubt aside, and reach beyond our comfort zone.
  • To put the judgment aside, and just listen.
  • To put the shame aside, and forgive.
  • To put the self-involvement aside, and take action to make the world better.
  • To put the earnestness aside, and laugh, because we will never, ever be perfect.
  • To put waiting aside, to do the right thing now.

Part IV: Making Good Intentions Stick

Over the years I have created my own form of Tushuva, writing my regrets and pledges for change in my journal, creating my personal positive ritual.  Often, a core intention will emerge, reduced to one easy-to-remember word.  One year, when I was feeling particularly lonely it was “Connect.” Another year, when I was deep in a troubled relationship, it was “Clarity.” This past year I added “Bold.”  Try it.  Enlist a trusted partner with your word. Then will it into being: “I am connected. I am clear. I am bold.”

This year ~

  • What will you feed to the fish?
  • What second chance are you ready to take?
  • What will your intention be for your new year?
  • What positive rituals will you put place to sustain the change you want to make?
  • How can you get support to keep returning to the person you really know yourself to be?

* Village

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