Passover and Earth Day

This year, the first day of Passover and the annual Earth Day both occur on April 22nd. Hence, this is a good time to consider environmetal 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:

Because of the above factors, there has been the beginning of a tradition 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? (At all other periods only local regions faced environmental threats; today, the entire world is threatened.) Why is there so much silence in the Jewish community about current environmental threats? Why aren't Jewish values applied toward the alleviation of environmental problems?

3. Rabbi Jay Marcus, 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 possesions 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 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 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 Pharoah he refused to take a stand when Pharoah 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". 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).



In honor of Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon of the liberating month of Nisan, here are two additions to the Haggadah that I wrote for a Freedom Seder held here last night by the Black-Jewish Coalition of Philadelphia.

The first is a kavvanah (focused intention) before lighting the yomtov candles; the second, usable either after the candles are lit or at the place in the Seder where we say, "In every generation, every human being must see that we ourselves come forth from slavery."

I have used earlier versions in home sedarim as well, and they work.

Chodesh tov! & blessings for a sweet and liberating Pesach.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow


(Before lighting the candles:)

We are the generation that stands between the fires:
Behind us the flame and smoke that rose from Auschwitz and from


Before us the nightmare of a Flood of Fire:
The smoke that rises from the burning of great forests
And from our addiction to burning gasoline,
These fires that threaten to choke and heat the earth beyond


It is our task to make from fire
Not an all-consuming blaze
But the light in which we see each other,
All of us different,
All of us made in the Image of God.
We light this flame to see more clearly
That the earth and the human race
Are not for burning.
We light this flame to see more clearly
The Rainbow in the many-colored faces of all life.


(After the candles or later in the Seder:)

We hear again the Voice that spoke to Moses at the Burning Bush:

I have seen, yes, seen my people
pressed down
in the Narrow Space, in Egypt;
Their shrieks of pain I have heard
as they faced slave-drivers;
I have taken their sufferings to heart.
I -- YHWH -- the Breath of Life.

Tonight we hear the shrieks of pain in our own country:

Moans of a woman dying of breast cancer -- caused by a pesticide poured into earth and air.

Wails of hunger from a baby whose mother has been cut off the welfare rolls.
Sobs of a man whose body is at last surrendering to AIDS.

Coughs of a janitor who caught tuberculosis from a man whose health insurance stopped when he was "downsized."

Tears of a tenth-grade student who was expelled from school because her father was an undocumented alien.

Dead silence of a refugee who killed himself when he was ordered to report for a dead-end task on workfare and so give up his efforts to learn English.

Shouts of raging quarrel between a suburban couple whose twelve-hour days of overwork have driven them to bitterness and anger.

Last gasps of a thousand dying species of ferns, whales, frogs, owls.

Sighs of loneliness of those with no community, no intimate friends, no sense of a larger Unity in the world.

Who speaks aloud, alongside those whose speech has turned to groaning?

Who breathes together with those who cannot catch their breath?

It is OUR voices that become the YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh / the Breath of Life.

WE breathe the breath of life, WE join these struggles, WE face the Pharaohs and strip them of their power.

For in OUR faces is the Face of God.

[Pause and ask people to look from face to face around the Seder table, pausing as they see each face to say within themselves: "This is the Face of God. --- And this is the Face of God. --- And this --- and this -- and this.]

[Then repeat:]

WE breathe the breath of life, WE join these struggles, WE face the Pharaohs and strip them of their power.

For in OUR faces is the Face of God.

- Arthur Waskow, on behalf of The Shalom Center

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