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Cast Away (a High Holiday Story)

I was four years old the first time I met the duck. My dad had taken me to the Tashlich service on Rosh Hashanah. A small group of people from our synagogue had gathered by river. The rabbi said a brief prayer, read a Psalm, and told us to spread out along the riverbank. Everybody brought stale bread. He asked us to think about our sins and throw the bread into the river. In doing so, we would be symbolically casting away our sins and allowing ourselves to start fresh.

My dad brought a box of stale matzah, which had been sitting around our kitchen since Passover the previous spring. All these people tossing bread into the river attracted the nearby ducks. My dad and I wandered down the river a few hundred yards from the others to a point where I could safely stand on a rock jutting into the water. He explained that sins were things we did that we felt bad about, things we knew were wrong but we did them anyway. The only sin I could recall that day was being mean to a boy in pre-school. I don’t exactly remember what I had done; maybe I grabbed a toy or pushed him away during circle time, but whatever it was I felt bad about it.

My dad stood a few feet behind me as I broke off pieces of matzah and threw them into the water. A duck, a common mallard with the bright green head and a yellow bill, paddled up. I knelt on the rock and started tossing the matzah bits directly toward him. I was chattering to him in a kind of baby talk, saying things like here ducky, nice ducky. Suddenly, the duck started talking back to me.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Mikey,” I said. “What’s yours?”

“I don’t have a human name and you won’t be able to pronounce my duck name. You can just give me any name you like,” the duck continued, his voice deep and quiet, kind and calm and reassuring.

I thought for a moment about a good name for a duck. The name Isaiah popped into my head. The boy I had been mean to had a new baby brother who was named Isaiah. “I’ll call you Isaiah,” I said.

“Isaiah, that’s a nice name, the name of a Hebrew prophet,” Isaiah replied.

I didn’t know anything about the Hebrew prophets or their names. I just nodded. My dad stood a few feet away on the shore watching me. “Don’t get too close,” he warned. “Just toss some matzah to the nice ducky.”

I threw some more to the duck, who gobbled it up. “Have you been mean to a boy in your class?” Isaiah asked.

I was stunned. “How do you know?” I stammered.

“I can taste it. You put your sins in the matzah. What are you going to do about that boy?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know.

“I think you should say you’re sorry and then do your best to never do it again,” Isaiah said.

“OK,” I agreed. And I promised to myself that I would do exactly what the duck had said.

“What are you doing?” called my dad. “Toss in the rest of the matzah and let’s go.”

I gave it all to Isaiah. “Bye bye. See you again,” I said walking away.

“I’m sure you will,” Isaiah replied.

“Were you talking with that duck? That’s so silly,” said my dad. He scooped me up in his arms and gave me a big kiss.

“The duck talked to me. His name is Isaiah,” I told him. He messed my hair and smiled and said OK. I don’t think he believed me, but I didn’t care. As he carried me, I waved again to Isaiah, who was eating the rest of the matzah.

My dad brought me to the river again the next year for the Tashlich service. This time I brought some old bagels. They were pretty hard to break into little pieces, but my dad helped me. My mom was staying home with my baby sister. She was little and cried a lot. “I hope Isaiah is there,” I said as we drove to the river.

“Who?” said my dad.

“Isaiah, the duck,” I reminded him.

“I don’t know if the same duck will be there, and I don’t know how you can tell them apart. They all look pretty much the same. But I’m sure there will be lots of ducks,” he said cheerily.

A bunch of people had already gathered. The rabbi recited the prayer and reminded us to think about our sins. This time I thought about all the bad things I wanted to do to my little sister if I had the chance. She was really annoying, and my mom was always tired because of her. Of course, I didn’t really do any of those bad things, but sometimes I would pinch her.

Then we all spread out along the riverbank. I immediately went to the rock. My dad followed. As soon as I started throwing pieces of bagel into the water, a mallard with a bright green head paddled over. I hoped it would be Isaiah. “Hi Isaiah,” I called out.

He gobbled up some bagel and swam close to the rock. “Hi, Mikey, I like bagels. Thank you,” he said. “Did you apologize to that boy last year?” he asked.

I must have because we had since become friends. “Yes,” I replied. “We have play dates together now. It’s fun.”

“But you don’t have fun with your baby sister, do you?” Isaiah continued.

“How do you know? I didn’t do anything really bad,” I said defensively.

“I can taste it in the bagels,” Isaiah replied.

“She’s a real bother. She ruins all my stuff and she cries. It’s awful,” I said.

“What are you doing?” my dad called from the riverbank. “C’mon, we have to get home to mom and your sister.”

“She won’t always be a bother. If you are nice to her and play with her sometimes, she will grow to love her big brother more than anything in the world. And your mom will be more rested and have more time for you too. Think about it,” said Isaiah.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Let’s go now,” my dad called again.

“I have to go. Bye bye, Isaiah. See you again,” I said, turning to leave.

“I’m sure you will,” Isaiah replied.

“Was that the same duck?” my dad asked as we got into the car.

“Yeah, Isaiah,” I said.

“Well, it seems you’ve found yourself quite a friend,” he said, but I knew he didn’t really believe me about Isaiah. It didn’t matter.

The next year it threatened to rain on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when Tashlich is observed. My father didn’t want to go to the river, but I insisted and threw a tantrum. Finally, he agreed to take me. We didn’t have any stale bread, but my mom gave me a bag filled with Cheerios. I like Cheerios and ate a few as we rode in the car. They tasted delicious. When we arrived, the rabbi was there with just a few people.

The rain had just started to fall, lightly at first, so the rabbi rushed through the prayer. I quickly ran to the rock and began throwing my Cheerios into the river. I thought about what had happened just a few days ago at the start of school and hoped Isaiah would show up. He would know what to do. He was right about the boy in preschool. He was right about my sister, who I now thought of as kind of fun. I knew he would know what to do.

The problems all started when a girl came to school with a really cool pencil box, which had a neat pencil sharpener. My mom got me a nice pencil box too, but it didn’t have a sharpener like that. At one point when no one was looking, I just took her pencil sharpener. I didn’t really plan to take it but I did. I knew it was wrong. I was going to just quietly slip it back in her desk but she went running to the teacher and made such a big fuss. Now, there was no way to give it back without everyone knowing. I felt terrible.

Isaiah appeared as soon as I started to throw the Cheerios. “These have a sour taste. You’ve done something very bad, haven’t you? You stole something,” he said.

“I didn’t mean to. I wanted to give it back,” I pleaded.

“Hey, let’s not spend a lot of time talking to that duck. It’s getting wet out here,” called my dad. He was holding an umbrella, but it had started to rain very hard and the wind was blowing. He was getting wet. My mom made me wear my yellow raincoat and boots and rain hat, so I didn’t mind as much. In fact, I was having fun.

“You have to give the pencil sharpener back. You can quietly leave it on the teacher’s desk or slip it into the girl’s desk. First thing tomorrow morning will be a good time. And then you have to promise God never to do something like that again,” Isaiah said.

“I will. I promise,” I said.

“Say goodbye to that darn duck, and let’s go,” urged my dad.

“Bye bye, Isaiah. See you next year,” I said.

“You can count on it. Goodbye, Mikey,” Isaiah replied.

“Do you really think it is the same duck each year?” my dad asked when we got in the car.

“Oh yes. It’s Isaiah. He’s my friend,” I said. My dad smiled in a funny kind of way. I’m not sure if he believed me or not. I decided not to tell anyone about Isaiah.

Every year at Rosh Hashanah I insisted my dad take me to Tashlich. After a few years he also took my sister, but I always ran to the rock first. Every year I brought some kind of bread–pretzels, chips, rye, pita, Cocoa Puffs, whatever my mom had around. And, it seemed there always was some sin, something I had done that was on my mind. Isaiah always appeared as soon as I threw the first piece in the water, and he always knew what I had done. Maybe I had broken some rule at school or talked back to my parents. One year I had cheated on a test. Another year I lied. The worst year was when I turned my back on my best friend because I wanted to get in with the cool kids at school.

Isaiah always knew what had happened and always knew what to do about it. Sometimes I knew what he would say, but until I heard it from him I didn’t really want to do it. I sort of hoped I could, maybe, get away with doing something else. But Isaiah wouldn’t accept anything else, and, it turned out, he was always right. I did what he said, and things worked themselves out.

Then, one year when I was in high school my parents got divorced. Rosh Hashanah came and my father was living in another city with his new girlfriend. My mom took my sister and me to services, but she didn’t want to go to Tashlich. That was my dad’s thing, she said. So, I went myself.

All I could find to bring were some awful croutons my mom once bought for salads. They were too spicy so nobody liked them. I arrived late. Everybody had already spread along the riverbank. I went straight to the rock and hurled some croutons into the water. Isaiah appeared, pushed around some of the croutons with his bill but didn’t eat any.

“So you don’t like them either,” I said.

“Why are you so angry?” he asked.

“How do you know if I’m angry? You haven’t even eaten a single crouton,” I replied

He looked at me, turned, and gobbled up a crouton. “There. Are you satisfied now? Why are you so angry?”

Most of the people had gone by now. I was alone on the riverbank. Without planning to, I sat on the rock and told Isaiah the whole story of my parents’ divorce and the kinds of mean, angry things I had been doing since then. My grades had fallen. I quit the basketball team. I skipped school. I fought with my mom and exchanged really nasty, mean words with my father about his girlfriend. When I got to the end of the story, I dumped the rest of the croutons into the water.

Isaiah pushed them around with his bill. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he finally said.

“Is that all you can tell me?” I snapped.

“What do you want me to say? Your dad and mom both love you, but you know that. This whole mess isn’t your fault, but you know that too,” he said.

“You’re right. They told me all that. Big deal,” I replied.

“You need to talk with somebody,” Isaiah continued.

“Like who? I’m talking to you,” I demanded.

“You might start by talking to your counselor at school,” he replied calmly.

“That jerk! No way,” I protested.

“Try it. This is too big a problem for you to handle yourself. Talk to your counselor or your coach or a teacher. There are people who are eager to help you if you just talk with them,” Isaiah said reassuringly.

“Maybe,” I said grudgingly.

“And also, talk with God,” he added.

“Why God? Is he going to magically bring my parents back together and make it like nothing ever happened?” I said mockingly.

“No, God won’t do that. But he will show you how to forgive your parents and let go of your anger.” Isaiah turned away from me and started eating all the croutons, which were floating away on the river.

He was swimming away from the rock. “Will I see you again?” I called.

He turned back for a moment. “You can count on it.”

With the help of a teacher, I managed to get things together again, at least together enough to get into a good college that wasn’t too far from home. I wanted to stay close so I could get back for Tashlich each year. I also tried talking with God, but it’s hard to tell if God heard me. Slowly my anger went away. And I began to see the strains that drove my parents to do what they did. So, I guess I did forgive them. As usual, Isaiah was right. It just wasn’t as easy as giving back a pencil box.

Throughout high school and college I managed to get back home for Rosh Hashanah and always went to the Tashlich service. And Isaiah was always there. Then one year, my mother remarried and moved away. My sister, who had become my best friend, went away for college. My father had left long before. Coming back for Tashlich wasn’t quite as simple.

Still, I treasured those minutes spent with Isaiah more than almost anything else in the world. I never stopped to question who Isaiah actually was. But clearly he was no ordinary duck. Neither did I wonder why Isaiah talked to me. I sort of felt that everybody had an Isaiah of their own in one form or another, just nobody talked about it. Isaiah simply was part of my life from my earliest memories.

We had our first fight when I was in law school. I arrived with some biscotti and tossed it into the water. I deliberately kept from thinking about the real sin that worried me because I feared what Isaiah would say and I didn’t want to hear it. In fact, I was prepared to argue with him, to get him to see it my way. In the meantime, I thought about a couple of parking tickets I had received. He appeared, ate the biscotti, and immediately saw through me. “What are you hiding?” he demanded.

I had been accused of plagiarizing a paper in law school, stealing somebody else’s words and ideas and not giving the other person credit for it. Law school was all about plagiarizing, I argued as I told Isaiah what had happened. Professors asked you to cite this ruling and that ruling. What I did wasn’t really any different, I insisted. Isaiah didn’t buy it.

“You plagiarized that work. You can make any excuses you want, but it is stealing and that won’t change. You need to tell your professor, apologize, and promise God never to try that again,” he said.

I pleaded with him: “But you don’t understand. If I admit it, the school will officially reprimand me. It will go into my permanent record. It will probably mean that I won’t get a choice internship or a job at a top law firm. If someday I run for political office or try to get appointed as a judge, it could be held against me. This isn’t like pinching my little sister or talking back to my parents. This is serious.”

“Every sin is serious, and every sin has its just punishment. This sin is no different. God remembers them all. When you admit it, accept your punishment, and sincerely seek forgiveness, you will feel right. And, God will forgive you,” Isaiah insisted.

I wanted to do what Isaiah advised, but I was afraid. When we parted I still wasn’t sure what I would do when I got back to school. “Will I see you again?” I asked.

“Whenever you come, I will be here,” he said, but he sounded sad.

I tried to fight the plagiarism charges, but I really didn’t have a case. In the end, I was publicly rebuked as well as officially reprimanded. If I had followed Isaiah’s advice immediately, I would have been quietly reprimanded instead of being made into a public spectacle. It was awful, worse than it would have been if I had just listened to Isaiah.

I’m not sure when I stopped going to Tashlich by the river. Maybe after I met a wonderful woman, married her and we settled in a distant city to pursue careers and start our own family. I went to Tashlich there by a pretty pond. It had ducks and geese and swans but not Isaiah. People must have thought I was a little weird, a grown man trying to strike up conversations with ducks during Tashlich. Later, I brought my own children, but I didn’t find Isaiah. Maybe my children did and I never realized it. I hope they did.

Anyway, I missed Isaiah. I missed his assured guidance. Maybe he didn’t actually tell me anything I didn’t already know. He certainly told me things I didn’t want to hear, but when I heard it from him, it made so much sense.

Despite the plagiarism incident in law school, I became a very successful lawyer. I managed money for very rich people and steered them into very lucrative investments. They became richer and I became rich. I craved the success. I gave a lot of the money I made to tzedakah, to charity. People put me on important boards and committees and threw dinners in my honor. I loved it.

Then things fell apart. One year I hit a bad streak. Maybe I was stretching too far, but the result was a string of bad deals. A lot of people who trusted me lost a lot of money. I should have told them about it right away, but I was afraid. I was afraid of losing everything I had worked my whole life to build. Without the money and the success, I feared I would lose my home and the love of my wife and my children and my friends and the respect I had in the community.

So I started lying to people and cooking the books–altering the records so people wouldn’t know what happened to their money. I tried to fix things but everything I did just seemed to make it worse. And I found myself breaking laws, doing things I could go to jail for. I was desperately looking for the big win that would let me settle up with everyone and set everything straight before I got caught.

After a while, people started asking questions and more questions and still more questions. I didn’t have any good answers. Even my lies didn’t work any longer. The police started looking into my activities. In fear, I ran away.

I don’t remember exactly where I went, but as Rosh Hashanah came around I found myself in my hometown. It had been years since I was last there. Few people probably remembered me, but I certainly wasn’t going to go to services at my old synagogue where I might be recognized. Instead, I went to the river and stood on the rock on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

It was late in the afternoon when I got there; the people who came for Tashlich had long since gone. I was alone. On the way, I stopped at a donut shop and bought a bag of donuts–cinnamon, sugar, glazed, a whole assortment. They would have to do for bread.

It was a beautiful early fall day. The air was crisp, and the late, low afternoon sun was bright and clear. The riverbanks glowed in the low light and the water seemed to twinkle. The leaves had just begun to turn color creating a mix of green and yellow tinged with orange, and red. I would have marveled at the beauty if I hadn’t been so desperate and scared. I tossed the first piece of donut into the water, wondering if Isaiah was still around. More than wondering, I was praying and hoping beyond any reasonable hope that Isaiah would still be there after all this time and would come to me. God, I prayed, please let him still be there. I desperately needed to talk with Isaiah although I could pretty much guess what he would say. This time, however, I wasn’t going to argue with him.

I threw a second piece of donut. No Isaiah. I threw another and then another, but Isaiah didn’t appear. Then I dumped the whole bag of donuts into the water. Nothing happened. I couldn’t blame Isaiah; I had stopped listening to him and had stopped coming. I’ve been so stupid, so really stupid, I thought. Forgive me, Isaiah, I muttered in despair as I started to turn and walk away. Then suddenly I heard a familiar voice. “Hello, Mikey. It’s been a long time.”