Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tashlich kayaking

It's not every day that G-d commands you to go kayaking. Well, by the most strict interpretations there's not any day when kayaking is a commandment. But every once in a while an opportunity comes along wherein you can twist the interpretation of religious practice such that it can involve kayaking. And that's why I love the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashonah. One of the traditional customs of this holiday is Tashlich.

Tashlich is a ritual casting off of sins. In its most commonly practiced form people walk to a spot with flowing water, say a prayer, and symbolically throw their sins into the water to be carried away. The practice has its basis in an interpretation of Micah 7:18-20, which states, “He will cast off our sins into the depths of the seas.” While it's not 100% certain when observance of this custom started, the prophet Nehemiah mentions that on Rosh Hashonah “All the Jews gathered as one in the street that is in front of the gate of water.” Like many Jewish practices, there are many variations on the practice. For example, some Jews cast bits of bread on the water and watch them be carried away. Other groups say that the bread custom is completely forbidden, since (among other reasons) carrying the bread to the water is forbidden work on a holiday such as Rosh Hashonah. Such is the glory of a decentralized religion like Judaism.

Anyway, readers who stayed awake through the preceding paragraph may have noticed mention of a mitzvah involving proximity to flowing water. Note that performance of this mitzvah does not require that you stay on the bank of the water. In fact, what better way to feel the swirling push and pull of sins being cast off than to actually perform Tashlich out on the water?

At this morning's worship service I had the honor of being on the be'imah (pulpit) along with other board members and David, the temple president. As we waited for the service to begin I raised my idea with David. I had to admit I had a pretty good idea of what his opinion on the subject would be, seeing as how he had his Wilderness Systems Tsunami kayak already loaded onto the roof of his car. We conferred and agreed that a kayak is indeed a fine platform from which to perform the Tashlich ritual. Such is the glory of the Reform branch of Judaism. So, right after services I headed home, switched from tallit to Tevas, threw the boat on the car, and headed for Columbia Island Marina. Unfortunately, David wasn't going to be able to go out until later in the afternoon and so we couldn't observe this custom together.

It was mid-tide when I launched and so I knew the Boundary Channel would be impassible. I therefore headed out to the Potomac. As I headed upriver I was surprised to find a fairly strong wind at my back. With the help of this possibly divine wind I made it up to Roosevelt Island in no time at all. There, in the lee of the island I was able to pause and take out a few bits of bread and my printouts. I put the bread on the deck, read the traditional passages from Micah and Psalms 33, flipped the kayak over to release the bread into the water, then rolled back up. Despite the rabbinic suggestion in Pirke Avot to “Turn it and turn it again”, I did not do any more rolls – the water's starting to get kind of cold!

After completing the Tashlich ritual I continued upriver, figuring I'd stop by Jack's Boathouse to wish a L'Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) to Paul, one of the proprietors. Unfortunately, there was no one down at the docks when I got there and so I continued on. About the time I left Jack's the wind picked up some more and it started getting darker. The weather forecast had included “Scattered Thunderstorms” and so I figured I should hightail it back to the put-in. I headed back down river, having fun banging through the slight chop on the way down. Fortunately the thunderstorm never arrived. In fact, by the time I got back to the marina it was sunny again.

I loaded the kayak back on the car, had a traditional Rosh Hashonah lunch of an energy bar and a Coke Zero at a picnic table by the water, then headed home with a purified spirit.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nation's Triathlon

One of the things kayakers get called upon to do is to support swimmers who are participating in events usch as triathlons or long open water swims. Kayaks can be up close to the swimmers as they don't pose a threat or obstacle to swimmers the way powerboats would. Swim support kayakers perform several functions, including herding swimmers who stray from the course, serving as a rest stop for swimmers who need a break and, occasionally, serving to tow swimmers out to rescue boats waiting outside the course. Of course, along the way we shout encouragement as well.

Today I volunteered at the Nation's Traithlon, a swim/bike/run event held right in DC. The mayor of DC, a fitness buff, participated, though I couldn't tell him from the rest of the swimmers. The event started with the swim leg, and the first wave started at 7:30 AM, so we kayakers had to be on the water early. We met up at Columbia Island Marina before dawn and paddled across to the starting line on the DC side (I know, technically Columbia Island is "the DC side as well) as the sun came up. We then spread out to cover the whole course. The course was roughly box-shaped. I took up position near the first turn. This is a challenging spot, as it is the first point at which the swimmers have to change course and a lot of swimmers miss it.

The swimmers launch in waves. Each wave wears a different colored swim cap. I'm not sure what the official puprose of this is, but from the kayakers' perspective it makes it pretty easy to spot the people who are falling behind their wave. I generally keep a closer watch on those people. There were some swimmers who I *never* thought would make it to the end, including one guy who was just floating on his back, slowly stroking with his arms - no kicking at all. But he made it, as did a number of the other slow-and-steady types.

All in all it was fun, as such events usually are. It was a beautiful day out on the water, we were close to home, and Dave B. was good enough to provide a truck bed full of donuts - enough to feed the paddlers both before and after the race. Plus I had the nice surprise of meeting up with the President of my temple, David L. I had known David was a paddler but he's not part of the Georgetown group and so I didn't expect to see him. It turns out, though that he knew someone who was competing in the Tri and so he volunteered. He and I bump into each other not only at temple board meetings, but also at all sorts of other places: on the water, at the yoga studio, ...

More images here.