Rabbi Lawrence Troster

Eco-theologian, Religious Environmental Activist

I was born in Toronto, which is on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The house I grew up in sits on a glacial till plain, a plain of soil deposited at the end of the last Ice Age. I used to go to summer camp about 150 miles north of Toronto, where the glacial till gives way to the igneous rocks of the Canadian Shield. At camp, I went on many canoe trips in Algonquin Provincial Park, where I saw beavers, otters, bears, raccoons and moose. I walked portages, and paddled on lakes so pure you could drink the water at the shoreline.

Every morning at sunrise, the birds begin to call; I often awake to their dawn chorus. They sing, signaling that they are alive and holding on to their particular territory: a song of life and hope.

I once went on a wilderness-kayaking trip in Alaska’s Tebenkof  Bay, where I saw the great Sitka spruce trees, the humpbacked whales, bald eagles, sea lions, minks, Sikta deer, sea otters, hundreds of kinds of birds, and the running of the salmon. I meditated and prayed to the sound of a humpback whale’s breathing as it passed by our island campsite. I have felt the ecstasy, awe, and terror of being in a kayak on the open ocean.

I now live in New Jersey. The rocks here are different, the result of different geological forces. But here there are fireflies and cicadas, and I have learned to love the sight and the sound of each of them. Since coming to New Jersey, I have also learned to love the ocean and the mountains of the northeastern United States.

As Jewish person of faith, I hold deep respect for the fundamental understanding that God, as Creator of the universe, is real Owner of all. It is also evident from the first chapter of Genesis, and other biblical texts, that God creates, takes care of, and takes pleasure in the diversity of life in the world.

Profoundly moving Biblical passages illustrate the harmonious order of Creation, an order in which humans have no primacy of place and are not the dominant power. Instead, we are part of the earthly choir, which joins the heavenly choir of the planets, stars, and other celestial creatures in the glorification of God. The earthly community of worshippers includes animal life, the forces of the natural world, the landscape, and all of human society.

This 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act offers us a time to reflect on our relationship to non-human life. In addition to saving specific endangered species, this law has helped us to understand the interdependence of all life, and that every life holds intrinsic value—value that is not simply a resource for human exploitation. The great numbers of species in the world are the words in God’s Book of Nature. When we bring about the extinction of species, we are erasing pages from God’s Book of Nature. Our response to Creation should instead be wonder, awe, love, and humility at its beauty, variety, and mystery.

Every morning at sunrise, the birds begin to call; I often awake to their dawn chorus. They sing, signaling that they are alive and holding on to their particular territory: a song of life and hope. Because birds are more easily seen and heard than many other species, they are often indicators of the health of an entire ecosystem. Yet in North America, at least 28 percent of the most carefully monitored species of birds are in serious decline, largely due to habitat loss caused by human activity. They are but one example of the magnitude of the problem of species extinction that is taking place around the world.

If all these things went away, torn from the Book of Creation by our lack of humility and responsibility, I would still be here but I would no longer be who I am now.