Marian Salamon

Marian Salamon


Yom Kippur has a strong hold on us primarily because of the concept of teshuvah, of return, of clearing the slate, of creating a clean record.  it brings the good news that renewal is possible, it promotes optimism,  and it counteracts guilt  by releasing us from  our bad choices and actions.  At the end of the day we feel assured  that correct intentions for the future  atone for the past. Thus each Jew can begin again every YOM KIPPUR, by resolving to improve one’s behavior, by doing another act of chesed in the coming year, by giving more tzedaka, by repairing interpersonal relations that have soured, by being more involved in YPS, by coming to Friday  and Saturday night minyanim, by making many types of amends.

I believe, however, that it is a mistake to imagine that all things can be made new again. Can we really imagine that all of our mistakes are revocable?

The world operates according to laws. the true meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema : v’natatee m’tar artz’chem b’eeto, yoreh oomalkosh…G-d promises us that if we obey his commandments he will grant the rain for our land at the right season. This indicates that certain acts have consequences and those consequences can be enduring.   But, according to Ecclesiastes,  the crooked sometimes cannot be made straight.

Environmental issues are not only the most enduring, but also the most global of consequences, and Sins against the earth, against the environment, are sins against G-d, the Creator, and these sins threaten irreparable damage to Hashem’s creation.

From Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13, we learn that G-d while taking Adam around the Garden of Eden for an orientation tour, as it were, tells him,  “See how beautiful all My creations are”, “All has been created for your sake. So reflect on this, and take care not to foul or destroy my world. For if you do, there will be none to repair it after you. And what is worse, you will bring death even to righteous people in the future.”

Human beings are able to improve upon or destroy creation; and our ultimate responsibility is to our landlord,  Hashem, to care for his property.  We are but tenants and our security deposits won’t be returned if we do not abide by the laws of tenancy.

What world ever needed this admonition more than ours, ours in which the human powers to create and permanently to destroy have reached unprecedented heights?  Isn’t our society one in which concern is focused on present comforts not future generations?

The story is told of a woman who committed a crime and went to prison. She bore a child there. The child who grew up in prison one day petitioned the king to be released since he had not committed any crime.  The king responded that he was there not because of his own crime but because of his mother’s.  The sins of earlier generations can doom those that come after.

All day on Yom Kippur, we recite, over and over, the list of divine attributes which we first discovered in  Exodus 34: kayl rachoom v’chanoon, erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet,    notzayr chesed l’alafim,  nosay avone vapesha vchataa v’nakay.  [G-d ...gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth ]. Verse 7 in shemot continues with lo y’nakeh pokayd avone avot el banim v’al b’nay el shelayshim v’al reebayeem. [The iniquity of parents is recalled upon children and grandchildren to the 3rd and 4th generations.]

The doctrine of intergenerational retribution at the end of that verse does not appear in our Mahzor.   On Yom Kippur We prefer to consider repentance as creating a clean slate rather than to consider the  reality of consequences and intergenerational justice. But we cannot avoid it.

A pointed fable elucidates this concept:
There once was a hungry lion who was eyeing a fox with desire.  The fox said to him: “What do you want with a scrawny little fox like me? Standing yonder is a well-rounded gentleman, who will make a much more satisfying dinner for you.”  The lion replied: “Don’t you know that animals are forbidden to kill and eat human beings?  I could be severely punished for that!”    Said the fox: “Not to worry–the punishment will not overtake you, but rather your children; as you know, ‘the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’.” The lion was seduced by this argument and ran towards the man to tear and eat him. As he was running, however, he was caught by a trap and found himself at the bottom of a deep pit. The fox gleefully ran over and looked into the pit. The lion cried from the bottom: “Liar! You said that only my children would be punished for my Sin!” The fox then said: “Fool! This punishment is not for what you just did, but rather for that which your father did. He once ate a human being himself.” The lion cried out:   “But that’s not fair! Why should I have to suffer from my father’s sins?” The fox answered with a laugh: “You yourself were just prepared to sin even though you knew that your children would suffer for it.  How, then, do you dare to complain about what’s fair!”

The more we show ourselves to be insensitive to the environment, which is the inheritance we leave to our children and grandchildren and generations to come, the less right we have to protest the unforgiving nature of reality.

We are a society much more readily distressed by an affront to the nation’s flag than by an offense against its rivers. We know what the record is: Unrenewable resources are wasted and depleted; forests that support whole life systems are destroyed or removed in order to make possible everything from housing developments to country club golf courses to the raising of beef.   Species which …for all we know… were long ago painstakingly and lovingly spared by G-d  from the Great Flood have finally been made to disappear; waterways and air have been fouled; and critical elements of the atmosphere have been destroyed.

The second paragraph of the Shema has a new meaning to us:  “if you obey the rules of tenancy in this world, then you will have life giving rain; if you do not obey those rules, then the rain will turn acidic and no longer give life.” It is easy to condemn the large corporations that cut down forests and create oil spills. It is much harder to face the fact–the incontrovertible fact– that so much of this unrectifiable damage to G-d’s world goes on because all of us have to one extent or another, bought into a lifestyle that leads to exploitation.  we need to heed the warning not to foul  G-d’s creation.

We should believe in the power of repentance and find the courage to change precisely in the hope that it is never too late. But we must also understand that one of
G-d’s greatest gifts to us is the very law like quality of the world,  it makes us into true moral agents, able to anticipate consequences, and to make free and responsible choices.

Yom Kippur is a day on which every moment is high noon. We wear the Tallit at night, as if it were day. Each tefillah contains the Kedushah of Musaf–the Kedushah of mid-day. This is the day in which we stand in judgment, and we cannot avoid the irrevocable consequences of what we do with G-d’s most basic gift.

And if we cannot see the justice in caring for nature and the environment for ourselves, let us at least do it for our children and grandchildren and future generations who may otherwise be born into a world not worth living in.  May the mitzvot, of the fathers and mothers be visited upon the children as we do our share in saving our earth.