This story is a retelling of one of the earliest Hasidic legends. The "wonder rabbi" whom Gershon visits is based on Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (c.17001760), the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism. He is also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, meaning "Master of the Good Name." My ancestors lived in the same region of Poland where he began his mission. They undoubtedly knew of him.
The idea of casting one's sins into the sea (as Gershon does in the story) is derived from an old Jewish ceremony called tashlikh. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, people gather by lakes or rivers or at the seashore to recite biblical verses concerning repentance and forgiveness. Some turn their pockets inside out, allowing bread crumbs to fall into the water to be eaten by fishes. This symbolizes the casting off of sins.
However, our misdeeds cannot be forgiven unless we are truly sorry and make every effort to right whatever wrong has been done. This is called t'shuvah.
T'shuvah is usually translated as "repentance." The word actually means "to return." When we fall short of being our best selves, we are haunted by our conscience, as Gershon is symbolically haunted by the monster in the story. Going through the process of t'shuvah permits us to erase our mistakes and "return" to our true moral nature. These are the steps we must follow:
1. Admit that we have done wrong.
2. Feel remorse.
3. Resolve in our hearts never to act this way again.
4. Make every effort to right the wrong we have done.
5. Apologize and ask forgiveness form those we have wronged.
6. Make every effort to relieve whatever pain or distress we might have caused.
When we confront the same situation, but this time do what is right, we have completed the process of t'shuvah. We have returned to our best selves.