The Jewish month of Elul is the last month in the year and marks the beginning of the season of repentance that culminates with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance, also known as the High Holidays.
The Jewish concept of repentance is called Teshuvah ("return" in English) and one of the critical aspects of repentance is the act of confession. In the High Holiday liturgy are numerous public confessions that are couched in general terms for a whole series of sins.
Jews confess primarily in public rather than in private, and in general terms rather than in specifics, because this allows everyone in the community to confess without shame or embarrassment. Public confession also binds the sins of one person to that of the whole community so that all take responsibility for one another. While Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) once wrote that we confess in specific terms only 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 traditional 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.
I, too, have committed environmental sins in my life. Here is one that would be more fitting to confess over a river in Northern Ontario (you will soon see why), but 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 had been going to this camp in Haliburton for nine years, and now 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 a little mad, completely 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 unfortunately seem often to be a part of growing up.
Every once and awhile, I have thought of this thing that I did. I eventually learned that since the 1980's the world frog population has been in sharp decline, probably caused by human created environmental factors such as disease, habitat destruction, toxic pollution and pesticides. This decline is a serious risk to biodiversity. Unfortunately, the causes of this decline are still not properly known even with continuing research. The extinction rate of frogs and other amphibians is anywhere from 211 times the background extinction rate to 25,039-45,474 times. The frog is a kind of environmental canary in the mine, warning us of the overall decline in the earth's ecosystems.
My unwitting part in the frog's decline has been in the back of my mind for some 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. (The Jewish tradition believes that one should confess for sins done both knowingly and unknowingly.) To do the frogs justice, according to Maimonides' rules, I should go back to that river and make confession there. Maybe someday I will get the chance to do so but that should not stop me from confessing now.
At a religious environmental conference called "Ground for Hope" at Drew University in 2005 (co-sponsored by Drew and GreenFaith) I participated in creating an interfaith worship service in which I wrote an environmental confession. It begins with a meditation (called a kavanah) which is meant to help the penitent to focus on the particular sin and ends with a traditional declaration done in the style of the main High Holiday confessional called the Al-Chet ("For the Sin of ... ) and at the service, although done in English it was chanted in a traditional melody:
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.
(From: Rabbi Lawrence Troster & Jane Ellen Nickell, "Cries of Creation, Ground for Hope: Faith, Justice, and the Earth Interfaith Worship Service," in: Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller, eds., Eco-Spirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, [New York: Fordham University Press, 2007].)
For over 25 years I have been active in the Jewish and interfaith environmental movements. I have written articles, given speeches and participated in conferences and joined local, national and international organizations. I have also 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 healing for what I had done. In Hebrew this is called a tikkun and is also part of the process of repentance.
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 in modern life there are so many things that we do every day that are detrimental to Creation. Nonetheless, this should not stop us from trying to undo the damage we have caused to God's creation.
We can begin by confession.