by Rabbi Lawrence Troster~
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are traditionally called the Ten Days of Repentance. Part of the Jewish concept of repentance is the act of confession, the Vidui.
We confess publicly rather than privately, and in general terms rather than in specifics, because it allows everyone to confess without shame or embarrassment. It also binds the sins of one person to that of the whole community so that all take responsibility. While Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) said that we are only to confess in specific terms for sins between one person and another, sometimes it is worthwhile to confess publicly for other kinds of sins. If we have sinned against a particular person, we are supposed to go to them, confess and ask forgiveness. If they have died, we are supposed to go with a minyan of ten people and confess over their graves. In all our acts of repentance, we are supposed to try and undo the damage we have caused.
While the old list of sins is fairly comprehensive, the time has come to add a new one: the careless destruction of Creation. At a conference for Jewish environmental scholars that I once attended, I heard an environmental educator say that we can become more environmentally aware and responsive by publicly confessing our environmental sins. He then proceeded to do so. Everyone there laughed a nervous laugh of embarrassment, because we all realized, without saying a word, that we all have such sins to confess.
Here is one of my environmental sins about which I have rarely spoken. While it would be more fitting to confess over a river in Northern Ontario (you will soon see why), because this is the season of repentance, I do it now.
When I was sixteen, as part of my summer camp program, I went on a canoe trip in Northern Ontario and I participated in a frog massacre. I was a CIT (counselor in training). Five of us and a “tripper” (a counselor who specialized in taking out canoe trips) set out in two canoes from the middle of Algonquin Park for a six-day trip that would take us to North Bay.
It was a wonderful trip and we had many adventures. Somewhere along a river about a day east of North Bay, we came across an area that was filled with frogs of many different kinds. One of us hit a frog with a paddle, and then we all went out of control. We began killing the frogs as we went, and I can’t even tell you how many we destroyed. Afterwards, I remember feeling a little ashamed, but we said nothing about it to each other. It was one of those mindless adolescent acts of cruelty that seemed to be a part of growing up.
Every once and awhile, I have thought of this thing that I did especially in light of the sharp decline of the global frog population of the world since the 1980’s. This decline is probably from numerous environmental factors and is one the most important threats to biodiversity. The frog may be a kind of environmental canary in the coal mine, warning us of the overall decline in the earth’s ecosystems.
My part in the frog’s decline has been in the back of my mind for a long time. Since I believe, that on some level, we must treat all life with the same kind of ethical concern with which we treat each other, I felt that I must confess. To do the frogs justice, according to Maimonides’ rules, I should go back to that river and make confession there. Maybe someday I will. In the meantime, I do so now in a confession that I wrote for an interfaith environmental conference held at Drew University:
Lord, our Creator, we awaken each morning to the dawn chorus of Creation. Our ears hear the birds of the sky singing to the world that they are still alive, Our eyes see the flowers of the earth opening to the light of the sun. We smell the scents of the fresh morning air. How many are the things You have made O Lord, the universe is full of Your creations! And yet we ignore these sounds, sights and smells. Instead of the birds’ song we hear only the sound of cars and machinery. Instead of the sight of green, brown and gold we see only the gray of concrete. Instead of the fragrance of flowers we smell only the sting of pollution. We experience only the fruits of our own creations. We know only of our own works which too often have wasted Your creation and silenced many of the voices of Your choir. We think we understand the world when only a fool thinks they can fathom the depths of Your designs. May You give us the strength and the wisdom to see, smell and listen to Your creation and be moved to protect and cherish the blessings that You have given us. May we no longer be moved by greed and destruction to waste Your world for if we destroy it there will be no other. We now know that the destruction of Your Creation is a sin.
And so for the sin that we have sinned against You by despoiling Your Creation, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.1
In the mid-1980’s I became active in the Jewish and interfaith environmental movement. I have written articles, given speeches and participated in conferences and joined local, national and international organizations. Slowly, I have tried to change the way I live to lessen the impact that I have on the earth. Perhaps one of the reasons for my involvement in environmentalism has been an attempt to bring about some kind of restoration for what I had done.
Maimonides said that the true measure of one’s repentance is found when you are faced with the same situation and you do not repeat your sin. This is a very high standard when it comes to sins against creation, since so many of the things that we do every day can be considered environmental destruction. Nonetheless, this should not stop us from trying to undo the damage we have caused to God’s creation.
We should begin by confession.
Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, PA, and he is the Rabbi-in-Residence at the Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue at Iona College. Rabbi Troster was the Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence of GreenFaith, the interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey and the former creator and director of the GreenFaith’s Fellowship program. He is the author of Mekor Hayyim: A Source Book on Water and Judaism.