White House Arrests; Bitter Herb, Matzah, & Healing Climate

Yesterday (March 21, 2013), along with 14 other religious folk, clergy and committed “laity,” I was arrested for standing at the White House with Bitter Herb and Matzah, signs and songs, reciting the names of more than 100 people who had been killed by one result of the climate crisis: Superstorm Sandy.

The action was organized by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, of which The Shalom Center is a vigorously active member. We were calling on the president to act swiftly to heal our Mother Earth from the climate crisis, from the plagues that modern Pharaohs — Big Oil, Big Coal, Unnatural Gas — have brought upon us.

Among those arrested alongside me were Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, who teaches on social justice at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is a member of The Shalom Center’s Board; Lynne Iser, a member of the Board of Isabella Freedman retreat center; and Freyda Black, a cantor, farmer and member of P’nai Or Fellowship in Philadelphia.

In a circle of 70 people in the midst of Pennsylvania Avenue, we had just completed a religious service. Rabbi David Shneyer had blown the shofar of warning and liberation. We had heard the Muslim call to prayer from the Quran, an invocation of the Four Winds in the spiritual tradition of the First Nations, and a Christian prayer.

Then I spoke about the Bitter Herb and recited the Ten Plagues of our own generation. In a traditional Passover Seder, we would pour wine from our cups ten times in order to express our grief over the ancient Ten Plagues. In the same vein, I invited the gathered community to call out “Sorrow” 10 times as we absorbed the grief brought on by the modern plagues.

We shared some matzah that I passed around the circle — the Bread of Affliction that on the night of Exodus became the Bread of Freedom because it was baked in haste and urgency. Just so, I said must we move with what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of Now,” to heal our planet before its wounds overcome us.


After the Matzah, Rose Berger of Sojourners magazine shared Palm branches around the circle and with them, the meaning of Palm Sunday — commemorating Jesus’ entry in a protest march into Jerusalem, opposing the violent and deadly Roman Empire just before Passover — the appropriate and risky time of remembering the downfall of Imperial Pharaoh.

Then we shared amongst us a large Globe of Earth, carrying it and singing as we walked to the White House fence, “We have the whole world in our hands — rivers and mountains in our hands, all our children in our hands, the whole world in our hands.”

Our action was videotaped, and we hope to be able to share the scene with you early next week. (The Shalom Center will be closed for the first two days of Passover.)

These are the Ten Plagues I recited, and below them, Ten Healings that accompanied the blessing of our Globe.

Ten Plagues

  • Undrinkable water poisoned by fracking. (Sorrow!)
  • Asthma: Lungs suffering from coal dust and gasoline fumes. (Sorrow!)
  • Suffering and death for fish, birds, vegetation and human beings from the oil upheaval in the Gulf of Mexico. (Sorrow!)
  • Smashed mountains and dead coal-miners in the lovely hills of West Virginia. (Sorrow!)
  • Unheard-of droughts in Africa, setting off hunger, starvation, civil wars and genocide. (Sorrow!)
  • Drought in Russia, setting off peat-bog fires and scarcity of wheat. (Sorrow!)
  • Summer-long intense heat wave in Europe, killing thousands of elders. (Sorrow!)
  • Unheard-of floods in Pakistan, putting one-fifth of the country under water. (Sorrow!)
  • Superstorm Sandy, killing hundreds in Haiti and America. (Sorrow!)
  • Years of drought and fires in Australia. (Sorrow!)
  • Parched corn fields and dead crops in the U.S. corn-belt. (Sorrow!)

Ten Healings

  • Creating organic farms in countrysides and cities. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Wind-based energy: Purchasing home and company electric power from wind-based suppliers. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Hybrid or electric cars. Families buy them; convince cities, government agencies and businesses to switch their auto fleets. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Use public transportation. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Family and congregational education/action to heal the Earth: At Bat/Bar Mitzvah time and teen-age baptisms/confirmations, “turning hearts of children and parents to each other, lest the Earth be utterly destroyed” (Quote from last passage of Malachi, last of the classical Hebrew Prophets). (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Vigils, picketing, civil disobedience at sites of mountain destruction by coal companies. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Prevent the Tar Sands Pipeline. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • End fracking: Insist on moratoriums or prohibitions. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Divestment by colleges, pension funds, religious communities, etc., from investment in fossil-fuel companies, shifting investment to renewable, sustainable energy. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  • Carbon pricing: Insisting that Members of Congress put prices on carbon-fuel production¬†and pay dividends from the incoming fees to American families. (L’chayyim, To life!)

The Plagues and the Blessings are part of a Healing Seder for the Earth that you can find, with seven questions and the symbolic foods and blessings, on our website at


Feel free to use it either as a whole this coming week or by choosing passages from it to add to your own Seder.

We are inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was among the leaders of a profoundly religious and spiritual movement to heal us from the great dangers of war and injustice in his day:

“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. … Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late’.”

And we take note that even a leading secular journalist, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, has called for civil disobedience to insist on strong measures to heal the climate crisis.

If we go over the Climate Cliff now, experiencing Plagues in our own generation as the Bible describes the Ten Plagues — all eco-disasters — long ago, our grandchildren will live in misery and suffering.

Today’s Plagues endanger the web of life upon our planet, including the human race — and inflict the greatest harm on the poorest and most vulnerable among us. We are especially concerned by the effects on local communities and our planetary future of destructive, extreme energy extraction: mountaintop removal, fracking, Arctic and deep sea offshore oil drilling, and Tar Sands mining.

Out of our moral commitment to protect and heal God’s Creation, our religious communities need to be calling for a set of first-step changes that will sow the seeds of greater change, by committing the president and Congress to vigorous action.

As we undertookr civil disobedience at the White House, we addressed not only our government, but also religious communities throughout the country: In the name of Creator Spirit, Holy One of Being — JOIN US!

What were we urging that the president do to meet the needs of this critical hour in planetary time? He must take actions necessary to heal our communities and the Earth, such as these:

  1. Permanently refuse permits for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, because tar-oil is among the most dangerous of the planet-heating forms of carbon.
  2. Call now a National Summit Conference on the Climate Crisis to meet with the urgency that the crisis demands — including leaders of business, labor, academia, religious communities, governmental officialdom, science and other relevant bodies.
  3. Publicly support and advocate for a carbon fee that will generate hundreds of billions of dollars, with provisions to ensure that working families and the poor are not harmed by higher carbon prices; for an end to subsidies to the coal, oil and gas industries; and for substantial subsidies for research, development, and use of renewable, sustainable and jobs-creating clean energy sources.

As we celebrate the Festival of Freedom, may we begin to think now what we need to do during this coming year to make it happen that hundreds of congregations join in the week before Pesach next year to face the Pyramids of Power of the Climate Pharaohs in our own communities, with or without civil disobedience.

Blessings of life, liberation, and healing for us all and for our Mother Earth, this Passover and Holy Week!

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