Liberating Passover & the Earth: Making change happen with the Interfaith Seder for the Earth

Liberating Passover & the Earth: Making change happen with the Interfaith Seder for the Earth

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 10/8/2008

The Shalom Center has created a 40th Anniversary New Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth to help us free ourselves from the greatest dangers of our time: What are the Ten Plagues endangering the earth and human life today, and what are the Ten Blessings we ourselves can bring to heal the earth and our own societies?

If you want to hold a New Freedom Seder in your own community, please write Rabbi Arthur Waskow at

In 1969, the original Freedom Seder, written by Rabbi Waskow and held on the first anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, broke precedent by linking the liberation struggle of ancient Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh with the modern liberation struggles of Black Americans and other communities.

Forty years later, he wrote the New Freedom Seder for the Earth to especially address the danger of global scorching, the climate crisis, and species extinction by drawing on the ancient story of the Ten Plagues. Each of them was an ecological disaster brought on by Pharaoh's hard-heartedness, stubbornness, and addiction to his own power. Each of them shattered human society as well as the fruitful earth.

The Fortieth Anniversary Freedom Seder focuses on how to move past the top-down pharaonic powers that today are blocking the path toward a promised land of sustainable community nourished by sustainable sources of energy.

This Seder for the Earth also draws on the teachings of Shabbat HaGadol, which comes just before Passover. On Shabbat haGadol we read Malachi, the last of the prophets, who 2500 years ago foresaw “a day that will burn like a furnace”; who then pointed toward its remedy as “the sun of righteousness with healing in its wings / rays,” which we can hear as the healing power of solar and wind energy; and who said that God would send Elijah the Prophet to “turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of children to the parents, lest the earth be utterly destroyed.” (Malachi 3: 19-20 and 23-24)

The Seder lifts up not only the Ten Plagues that have been brought upon our generation by the pharaohs of today, but — even more important — Ten Healings for the earth that we ourselves can bring into being. The Seder will be a beginning, not an end in itself. Participants will decide how they themselves can take further action to heal earth and humanity from these dangers.

There is now available from The Shalom Center's Shouk Shalom of books, CD's, DVD's, etc. a two-DVD set of film from the Freedom Seder of 1969 and the New Freedom Seder for the Earth of 2009, each celebrated in full interfaith joy by hundreds of people — Jews, Christians, Muslims — in Black churches in Washington DC. To order your copy, click here.


On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers' strike. His death touched off a national conflagration as people poured out their wrath and desperation on streets and buildings in their own neighborhoods.

Passover began on April 12th that year. Arthur Waskow, then a secular activist and writer in the civil rights and antiwar movements, walked homeward toward his Seder that night. Washington DC was under curfew. The US Army patrolled his and many other neighborhoods. African Americans were herded into jail for breaking curfew, but the police left whites alone.

For the entire week after DR. King's death, Arthur was one of a network of white activists who brought food, medicine and doctors from the suburbs into the schools and churches of burnt-out downtown Washington. On April 12, he walked home to prepare for the Passover Seder. That meant walking past an Army Jeep on 18th Street, a machine gun pointing up his block. "Somewhere within me," Arthur recounts, "deeper than my brain or breathing, my blood began to chant: 'This is Pharaoh's army, and I am walking home to do the Seder.'"

The words of Dr. King's last speech echoed in his ears: "I am standing on the mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land. I may not reach there, but the people will." Moses and King spoke as one, inspiring Arthur to create the Haggadah for the first Freedom Seder. "I had written half a dozen books-on military strategy, disarmament, race relations, American politics," he said, "but this was different: this book was writing me."

A year later, on April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of Dr. King's death and the third night of Passover, the first Freedom Seder took place. A group called Jews for Urban Justice decided to hold a Seder using Arthur's words. They enlisted the help of Rev. Channing Phillips, a young African American minister with whom he'd served on Washington, DC's delegation to the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The delegates were pledged to Bobby Kennedy; when he fell to an assassin's bullet, they nominated Phillips as DC's favorite son, the first Black person ever nominated for President in any major-party convention.

On April 4th, 1969, 800 Jews and Christians, Black and white, gathered in the basement of Channing Phillips' church to celebrate the Freedom Seder that had begun to erupt in Arthur's mind in the spring of '68.

In a remarkable speech delivered a year to the day before his death, Dr. King had said that "We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies…. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…. A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just."

Dr. King delivered this speech at an interfaith meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. He began by acknowledging his civil rights movement colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Indeed, the spring Dr. King was murdered, he had been planning to take part in his first Passover Seder with Rabbi Heschel. And he ended his speech with a call for multireligious unity in pursuing justice and peace:

"This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond
one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

"When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I
am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: 'Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.'"

On the fortieth anniversary of the first Freedom Seder, The Shalom Center is reissuing Dr. King's call to join in opposing "racism, extreme materialism, and militarism."

The Passover Seder is a sacred meal framed and facilitated by a Haggadah, a written recounting of the exodus from Egypt by Israelite slaves, escaping with Pharaoh's army in hot pursuit. Participants in the Seder partake of symbolic foods, recite blessings and share songs and stories, all designed to recreate the experience of liberation, reminding each generation of the miracle of freedom and our own responsibility to constantly renew it.

Since the first Freedom Seder released a torrent of inspiration in 1969, Jews have more and more adapted their own Haggadot, infusing the long-ago tale with stories of oppressors- Pharaohs-in our own time, and of the brave and noble steps human beings have taken to free ourselves from bondage.

In the course of his very last speech, Dr. King made extensive reference to the tale told in the Haggadah. Then he explained why: "Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves."

Now, even more than in 1968, the forces that would divide us are resourceful and determined. Now, even more than in 1968, the reasons to unite for common purpose, to assert our essential equality and kinship, are powerful –– powerful to empower all of us against those who seek to overpower us.. The symbolic celebration of the Seder is a sign and reminder of the great deeds possible for people set on freedom; and the approaching fortieth anniversary issues a powerful spiritual and political call.

Forty is an iconic number in biblical tradition:
forty days of rain as the Flood began,
forty years of wandering in the Wilderness,
forty days of fasting for Moses (and then Jesus) on the mountaintop,
forty days of Lent.

This iconic number is rooted in the human body: as Rabbi Jeff Roth teaches, a full-term birth requires forty weeks of pregnancy. Forty is the archetypal time of pregnant pause toward a birthing.

Drawing on this embedded spiritual power, the core aim of the Fortieth Anniversary Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth is to bring people of goodwill together, crossing every barrier that divides us –faith, race, gender — to experience and be inspired by stories of our own capacity to choose freedom, to jointly reject racism, extreme materialism, and militarism and to jointly experience the rebirth of our dedication to equality, a fair, sustainable, and humane economy, and peace.

_ Because the greatest danger facing the human and planetary community today is the danger of global climate disaster, the New Freedom Seder takes the traditional story of the ten plagues as a central element. We see the ancient plagues in a new light as eco-disasters brought on by the arrogance and hardheartedness of top-down, unaccountable power centered in the Pharaoh. From this perspective, participants can understand our contemporary plagues –- droughts, floods, melting of Arctic ice and Himalayan snows, the spread of what used to be tropical diseases into what used to be temperate zones — as the consequences of top-down, hard-hearted, unaccountable power today.

And we lift up hope, by naming the Ten Blessings that human effort and commitment can bring to the earth and all humanity.

In the words and the practice of the Seder, we highlight the necessity of open-heartedness, compassion, the empowerment of the powerless, and the extension of community to all life-forms.

In addition to the Haggadah, The Shalom Center is making an accessible step-by-step Freedom Seder Kit available for download from the Web site, including everything needed instructions for planning a local Seder, from a shopping list to a model flyer and press release to a set-up checklist. User-friendly Web-based tools will make it easy for visitors to the Web site to locate Fortieth Anniversary Freedom Seders in their regions, to network with others interested in planning local Seders, to find partners from other faith communities and to locate resources to help in their own planning.

As with The Shalom Center's entire interfaith/ multireligious peacemaking program, the Freedom Seder's goal is to help create a coherent network of religiously rooted activists. We envision a policy-oriented coalition, of course, able to bring moral authority to bear on issues of great concern. But most essential, it wills embody our faith in the
remarkable power of a network of people who have prayed and meditated together, shared each others' spiritual journeys and from these experiences have come to trust that their action agendas flow from spiritual connection with all beings and with the One.

This interfaith action network will be able to spread the compassionate and liberatory message of the Freedom Seder both in their own spiritual and communal relationships and in public-policy advocacy, helping to shift our nation's energies toward strengthening community rather than domination and violence and moving beyond the global climate crisis to an ecologically sustainable world economy. It is impossible to predict when the tipping-point will be reached, but an event like this, drawing deeply on an historic reservoir of hope for so many traditions, can ignite a chain-reaction that moves mountains.

Please help us fulfill its potential.

— Shalom, salaam, peace — Arlene Goldbard & Rabbi Arthur Waskow. 
[Goldbard is chair of the Board of the Shalom Center; Waskow is its Executive Director.]

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