By Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
"In every generation, each person is obligated to see him or herself as having gone out from Mitzraim (Egypt) [from slavery to freedom]." These words are central to the liturgy of the Passover seder, observed this year on the evenings of April 18 and 19. They are intended to invoke the central historical narrative of Passover, the Exodus, and its moral, eternal message that all human beings are created in the image of God and are all of equal dignity. While the Exodus narrative plays a central role in the Jewish observance of Passover, it doesn't tell the whole story.
The major Jewish festivals all have historical reasons for their celebration: Passover commemorates the Exodus; Shavuot, the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai; Sukkot, the booths in which the Israelites dwelt in the wilderness. At the same time, the Bible itself portrays the festivals as rooted in the agricultural cycle of the year. As Passover approaches, it's worthy to examine this nexus between the historical and agricultural origins of the holiday. I believe that their convergence speaks to our generation in a fresh, meaningful way with respect to our stewardship of the environment. Our physical and spiritual freedom today depends on our society rediscovering and appreciating the earth as a web of life of which humanity is a part.
The Hebrew Bible presents a deep connection between the spring time reawakening of the earth from its winter slumber and ancient Israelite rituals to mark the change of seasons. The festival takes place in the month of Aviv (spring), so the rituals associated with the festival are richly connected to the seasonal cycle of the year. The Biblical text describes the Lord's Passover that takes place at dusk on the 14th day of the first month at which time the Paschal lamb was sacrificed. The next day, the 15th of the month, is the Festival of Matzot/Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:5-6). It has been suggested by Biblical scholars that the Passover offering was an ancient Near Eastern spring time festival among shepherds offering thanks to a divinity for sustaining their flocks and allowing them to reproduce. The Festival of Matzot was a spring time observance marking the beginning of the grain harvest. The ancient Israelites took these disparate rites of spring and imbued them with greater significance as part of the annual commemoration of the Exodus. (See also My Jewish Learning on Passover origins).
As Judaism has evolved over the ages and as Jews in the modern world have adopted multiple levels of observance, Passover continues to capture the collective Jewish imagination and the Jewish communal yearning for freedom and respect for human dignity throughout society. At the same time, the rituals of the holiday are connected so deeply to the earth and its seasons. It is as if the earth is listening to our celebration of freedom and crying out, "Me too!"
When the liturgy of the seder calls on us to travel back in time to experience the transformation from slavery to freedom, we can also imagine a time when human beings were more at one with the land, the seasons and the entire natural world. If we take the wisdom of the ancient Israelites back into our own day, we might discover our society's collective transformation to a culture of consumption that is destroying our planet and destroying our souls from within. In upcoming postings of this blog, I hope to explore more in depth specific areas of concern in which the earth and human society are suffering as a result of human exploitation of the earth and ways in which contemporary readings of classical Jewish sources can enhance our communal conversation on creating more sustainable lifestyles.
Regarding Passover, let me conclude with some practical tips to create a more eco-friendly Passover:
• Donate to food pantries. In the season of spring cleaning, many Jewish households take seriously the observance ridding the home of chametz, leavened, grain-based food products. Don't waste it. Pass it on to those in need.
• Buy local, in-season, produce where possible. Minimize your carbon footprint and support farmers near your home community.
• Avoid disposable plates and cutlery. This environmentally unfriendly practice has crept into many traditional homes where year-round utensils are not used for the chametz-free holiday. This Passover, let's reduce waste while eliminating chametz. Consult a rabbi or published guides for kashering (making fit) utensils for Passover use, and/or consider purchasing Passover-only utensils.
Humanity is intended to be a guardian of the earth, not a plunderer of its resources that will enslave future generations to greed, consumption and waste. Passover calls on us to act sustainably toward each other and toward the earth. I look forward to our further explorations of Judaism and environmental stewardship.