Earth Etude for Elul 27 – Re-Connecting to the Land

by Rabbi Lawrence Troster

~On a recent vacation to my home town of Toronto, as I drove around the countryside and saw the many places I knew so well from my childhood, I reflected again on how the landscape in which I lived affected who I am and how I see the world. I was born in Toronto which is in an area that was covered by glaciers over 10,000 years ago and the land still is shaped by that ancient event: spoon shaped hills called drumlins, ridges called eskers which are the remains of the river beds that flowed from the retreating ice. And lakes: I spent many of my summers at camp in Northern Ontario beyond the glacial till where the major geological feature is the Canadian Shield which has some of the oldest rock in the world: more than 3.96 billion years old and which covers some 5,000,000 square miles of Canada and the U.S. In Ontario, the glaciers carved out more than 250,000 lakes from the Shield and many of my summers were spent in the rock, water and forest of that landscape. In this world, I had some of my deepest and most important spiritual experiences that remain with me still.

When I moved to New Jersey over 20 years ago I became part of a new geological area: the Piedmont province formed of volcanic basalt over 200 million years ago. And now I live in Pennsylvania where I am in a different kind of geological formation: rolling hills and valleys of metamorphic rock formed during the Precambrian period some one billion years ago.

What does all this mean for me? The food that I ate and which formed me, was grown in the glacial soil of Southern Ontario is still, so to speak, bred in my bones. How did this land also affect my mental perspective on the world? I thought of these things as I saw the familiar ridge of the Niagara Escarpment over which the mighty Niagara Falls fell. For the first time in my life I took the boat that brought me close to those falls. I felt the spray and saw the wonder of those thundering waters.

In this month of Elul when we are supposed to take stock (heshbon ha-nefesh) of our lives and actions from the past year, I believe that we should also think about the places where we were formed and where we now live. Forgetting these landscapes is a kind of sin. We must remember the rocks, the soils, the water, the flora and the fauna and what they imparted and continue to impart to our lives in real concrete ways. Each one is different; each one has special qualities that we are mostly not conscious of. So as part of our spiritual accounting we should try to bring these places out of our unconsciousness into our consciousness. Maybe this process will teach us to understand how we are of the earth.

Our tradition often tries to symbolically connect us with the land of Israel which provides a foundation for our identities as Jews. Collectively, it is the land which formed us as a people and where we still live in our collective memory. But each of us also has a place and a foundation from which we came, an actual place where the minerals of the soil, the water we drink and the air we breathe has given shape to our flesh. Let us not forget these places. Let us remember and, ask for forgiveness for the sin of forgetting that place from which we came and to which we will go.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, Pennsylvania and is the Rabbi-in-Residence at the Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York.

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