It was a time of trouble and sorrow in the animal kingdom. A terrible plague was decimating the denizens of the forest, with the number of the sick and the dead rising from day to day.

A royal proclamation was issued, and all the animals, large and small, were commanded to assemble in the great clearing in the middle of the forest. The lion, king of the beasts, then addressed his subjects:

“Brothers and sisters!” the king roared. “A great punishment has been visited upon us from Above. We must root out the sinners amongst us, before we all perish. We must each search our hearts and confess our sins, so we should know who is the cause of this calamity.”

His royal highness set the example by being the first to bare his soul. “The other day I killed a man. I was patrolling the boundaries of my kingdom, my heart heavy with the burdens of my high office, when I encountered our two-legged master and pounced upon him . . . I have sinned, and you must pass judgment upon me for my crime.”

“Your highness!” cried the all the animals. “Who can blame a noble leader if, while distressed and distracted by the great responsibilities he bears, he lashes out unwittingly? Surely you are forgiven for your transgression.”

Next spoke the wolf: “I, too, have a sin to confess. The other day, as I prowled the edge of the forest with hunger in my belly, I chanced upon a she-goat and her kid nibbling the flowers of the meadow. I tore out their throats, killing both mother and child, though even one animal was more than I could eat . . .”

“True, you have sinned,” replied the animals, “but certainly you must be forgiven for your lapse, since your hunger clouded your thinking.”

An so it went. One after the other, the predators of the forest confessed their carnage and thievery. One after the other, the council of animals absolved them of their crimes due to mitigating circumstances.

Then the sheep spoke. “I, too, have committed a crime. The other day, I was very hungry; for some reason, my master had neglected to take me out to the pasture. So I ate the bit of straw that my master puts in his shoes so that his feet should not rub against the hard leather.”

“How dared you!” roared the lion.

“Thief!” hissed the snake.

“Criminal! Sinner!” cried all the animals as they pounced upon the wicked lamb and tore her to pieces.

From the parables of the Maggid of Dubna (Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, 1740–1804)