The traditional Passover Haggadah teaches that in every generation some pharaoh will arise to destroy and that in every generation, every human being–not just every Jew–must look upon herself or himself as if it is we, not our ancestors only, who must go forth to freedom.
In this generation, what pharaoh do we face, what freedom must we seek, what action could we take–not only Jews but all of us who face the dangerous pharaohs?
This year, the first Seder of Passover falls on Saturday night, April 19; Earth Day occurs three days later, on April 22. The environmental focus of Earth Day–which has softened a great deal over the decades–could be sharpened in connection with Passover and its reminder about contemporary pharaohs. Passover intertwines human freedom with the renewal of the earth: in the moment of spring, when new grain, new lambs and new flowers rise up against winter, not only a community of oppressed human beings but the earth itself rises up against pharaoh (in what we call the “plagues”).
Today the global climate crisis threatens the whole planetary web of life, and there are some institutions–pharaohs–that make the crisis worse. They are bringing on us all the plagues of today–rivers undrinkable, frogs dying, the Great Lakes drying, hurricanes worsening, glaciers melting, polar bears drowning, seacoasts rising, droughts consuming.
There is a close relationship between our individual profligate consumption of coal and oil and the behavior of these pharaohs–Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Auto. They seduce us into our addictions while claiming that global “scorching” does not exist, or that if it does it is not the result of human misdeeds, or that even if it is, it will cost our economy too much to change. All this is the behavior of pharaohs protecting their power and wealth by making their products into our idols.
At Passover, eating matzo–unleavened bread–is connected to getting all leavening out of our houses–yeast, fermented foods, souring agents. The Hassidic teachers of Jewish mysticism saw leavening not only as physical but metaphorically as the swelling up of excess in our own lives–the pharaoh within each of us, swelling us up in grandiosity. In this sense, overconsumption is “leavening,” and Passover is teaching us that spring cleaning is a time to simplify our lives.
Specifically, is coal-fired electricity “leavening,” to be expelled from our houses and replaced by wind-stirred electricity? Is our own addiction to the overuse of oil, coal and gasoline a kind of leavening?
How could households and congregations sweep out this kind of leavening before, during or after Passover?
Passover is about not only personal change but also political and social change. Can we face the external pharaohs as well–those institutions that are turning the great round earth into a narrow place–Mitzrayyim (the Hebrew word for Egypt, which actually means “tight and narrow space”)?
On the Sabbath before Passover (April 18-19), traditionally the prophetic reading in synagogue is from the Prophet Malachi. It ends with God promising to send Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to parents–“lest the earth be utterly destroyed.”
This 2,500-year-old prophetic call comes alive with new force in our generation–calling for the old and young to work together–to take on “Elijah’s” mission–to heal the earth from the danger of utter destruction.
For the Seder, families and congregations could use supplemental Haggadah readings on healing the earth, with the goal of inspiring efforts during the rest of Passover to work for earth-healing change at home and in public policy.
Beyond the conventional home and community Seders, we could do Speakout Street Seders for the Earth–perhaps during the week before Passover–to galvanize public attention and stir conversations at home Seders all over the country. Earth Day itself could be another venue for such events.
Could such Speakout Street Seders for the Earth gather people in many different cities to focus public attention on the need for change in public policy–and on the pharaohs that stand in the way?
At Environmental “Protection” Agency regional offices, demanding that the EPA permit the states to adopt higher earth-healing standards on carbon emissions?
Or at ExxonMobil offices, demanding carbon taxes?
Or at Congressional offices, with the Warner-Lieberman climate bill coming up for votes about then, needing major improvements?
Could we bring matzo and bitter herbs, chant the plagues of today–as we pour wine out of our cups?
Could we make such Street Seders not only a warning but also a time for joy? At the home Seder, we traditionally save a cup of wine to welcome Elijah. Perhaps at such Speakout Seders for the Earth we can, with joyful song and dance, welcome the Elijah in one another–the Elijah who turns the hearts of parents and children to one another “lest the earth be utterly destroyed.”