This year, the first night of Passover and the annual Earth Day both occur on April 22nd. Hence, this is a good time to consider environmental messages related to Passover 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) acid rain (2) depletion of the ozone layer (3) destruction of tropical rain forests (4) global warming (5) soil erosion and depletion (6) loss of biodiversity (7) water pollution (8) air pollution (9) an increase of 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 imperilled by the modern plagues.
Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, many of 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.
Because of the above factors, there has been the beginning of a tradition among some Jews to spill an additional ten drops of wine or grape juice at the seder to recognize the significance of the modern plagues.
2. The 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? Some responses: At all other periods only local regions faced environmental threats; today, the entire world is threatened. Why is there too little concern in the Jewish community about current environmental threats? Why aren’t Jewish values applied more toward the alleviation of environmental problems?
3. Rabbi Jay Marcus, former spiritual Leader 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” (dessert) 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 significntly to climate change, the destruction of habitats and many other environmental problems.
4. A popular song at the seder is “dayenu” (it would have been enough). The message of this song would be very useful 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. The main Passover theme is freedom. While relating the story of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their redemption through God’s power and beneficence, Jews might also want to consider the “slavery” of animals on modern “factory farms,” which as indicated above, contribute substantially to climate change and other environmental threats. Contrary to Jewish teachings of “tsa’ar ba’alei chayim” (the Torah mandate not to cause unnecessary “pain to a living creature”), animals are raised for food today under cruel conditions in crowded confined spaces, where they are denied fresh air, sunlight, a chance to exercise, and the fulfillment of their natural instincts. In this connection, it is significant to consider that according to the 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).