Passover 2024 and Earth Day

           This year, the start of Passover and the annual Earth Day occur on April 22nd. Hence, this is an excellent time to consider environmental messages related to Passover and the events and concepts associated with the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt:

1. Today’s environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues:

  • When considering the threats to our land, water, and air, we can easily enumerate ten modern “plagues.” For example, (1) climate change, (2) deforestation, (3) increasing droughts, (4) widening deserts, (5) soil erosion and depletion, (6) loss of biodiversity (7) water pollution, (8) air pollution, (9) an increase in the 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 threaten us simultaneously.
  • The Jews in Goshen were spared the Biblical plagues, while the modern plagues imperil every person on earth.
  • Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are the root of current environmental threats.
  • God provided the Biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today, we must apply God’s teachings to save ourselves and our precious but endangered planet.

2. The seder is a time for questions, including the traditional”four questions.” Additional questions related to modern environmental threats can be asked. For example, why is this period environmentally different from all other periods? (At all other periods, only local regions faced environmental threats; today, the entire world is threatened.) Why is there insufficient activism 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” (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 while an estimated nine million of the world’s people die of hunger and its effects annually. 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.

    Today’s world is rapidly approaching a climate catastrophe, and everything possible must be done to prevent it. Shifts toward vegan diets are especially valuable because they would (1) reduce emissions from cows and other ruminants of methane, a greenhouse gas over 80 times as potent per unit weight as CO2 in heating the atmosphere, and (2) it would enable reforestation of much of the 43 percent of the world’s ice-free land that is currently being used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals. The additional trees would sequester much atmospheric CO2, reducing it from its current very dangerous level to a much safer one, potentially leaving a healthier, environmentally sustainable world for future generations.

4. A popular song at the seder is “dayenu” (it would have been enough). The message of this song would be beneficial 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, as an advisor to Pharoah, he refused to take a stand when Pharoah asked him what should be done regarding the Israelites. This story can be discussed as a reminder that severe consequences may follow if we remain neutral and do not get involved in working for a better environment.

6. The central Passover theme is freedom. While relating the story of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their redemption through God’s power and benevolence, Jews might also want to consider the “slavery” of animals on modern “factory farms.” 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 instincts. In this connection, it is significant to consider that according to the Jewish tradition, Moses, Judaism’s most outstanding 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).

     In view of the above points, Passover would be a wonderful time to apply Jewish values more widely in response to humanity’s many current environmental threats.

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