Environmental Connections to Passover
By Richard H. Schwartz
In view of the many current environmental crises that face the world today, this pre-Passover period is a good time to consider environmental messages related to the holiday and the events and concepts related to the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt:
1. Today's environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues:
* When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, we can easily enumerate ten modern "plagues". For example: (1) climate change (2) rapid melting of glaciers and polar ice caps (3) destruction of tropical rain forests (4) acid rain (5) soil erosion and depletion (6) loss of biodiversity (7) water pollution (8) air pollution (9) an increase in the number and severity of storms and floods (10) increased use of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other toxic chemicals.
* The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, while the modern plagues are threatening us simultaneously.
* The Jews in Goshen were spared the Biblical plagues, while every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.
* Instead of an ancient Pharaoh's heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats.
* God provided the Biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today we must apply God's teachings in order to save ourselves and our precious but endangered planet.
2. The Passover Seder is a time for questions, including the traditional "four questions." Additional questions can be asked related to modern environmental threats. For example: Why is this period different than all other periods? (At all other periods only local regions faced environmental threats; today, the entire world is threatened.) Why isn’t there more activism in the Jewish community (and other communities) about current environmental threats? Why aren't Jewish values applied toward the alleviation of environmental problems?
3. Rabbi Jay Marcus, rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Staten Island, saw a connection between simpler diets and helping hungry people. He commented on the fact that "karpas" (eating of greens) comes immediately before "yahatz" (the breaking of the middle matzah for later use as the "afikomen" (desert) in the seder service. He concluded that those who live on simpler foods (greens, for example) will more readily divide their possessions and share with others. The consumption of animal-centered diets involves the feeding of 70% of the grain grown in the United States to animals destined for slaughter and the importing of beef from other countries, while an estimated 20 million of the world's people die of hunger and its effects. This simpler diet would also have positive environmental effects since modern intensive livestock agriculture uses vast amounts of water, fuel, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and other resources, and contributes to the destruction of habitats and many other environmental problems.
4. A Haggadah song at the Seder is "dayenu" (it would have been enough). The message of this popular song is relevant today when so many people seek to constantly increase their wealth and amass more possessions, with little thought of the negative environmental consequences.
5. An ancient Jewish legend indicates that Job's severe punishment occurred because when he was an advisor to Pharaoh he refused to take a stand when Pharaoh asked him what should be done with regard to the Israelites. This story can be discussed as a reminder that if we remain neutral and do not get involved in working for a better environment, severe consequences may follow.
6. According to Jewish tradition, Moses, Judaism's greatest leader, teacher, and prophet, was chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because as a shepherd he showed great compassion to a lamb (Exodus Rabbah 2:2). Today, about 65 billion animals are raised annually for slaughter, mainly on factory farms under very cruel conditions, and raising food and providing water for these animals and getting rid of their wastes cause many environmental problems. Animal-based agriculture contributes significantly to climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biological diversity, and other environmental threats. Hence a shift toward vegan diets would help move our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.
In view of the above points, Passover would be a wonderful time to increasingly apply Jewish values in response to the many current environmental threats to humanity, in efforts to move our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.