The traditional Passover Haggadah teaches that in every generation, some Pharaoh will arise in destruction, 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, and what freedom must we seek?
Pesach 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, 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 the behavior of pharaohs protecting their power and wealth by making their products into our idols.
At Passover, eating matzah — 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 also 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 “eco-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?
Can we face the external Pharaohs as well — those institutions that are turning the great round earth itself into a narrow place? (Mitzrayyim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, actually means “tight and narrow space.”)
On the Shabbat 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 for the generations to work together to heal the earth from the danger of utter destruction comes alive with new force in our generation.
Would synagogues make Elijah’s commitment the point of that day and invite a discussion about the meaning of the verse in our generation?
The first Seder is on Saturday night, April 19. Families and congregations could use supplemental Haggadah readings on healing the earth with the goal of inspiring efforts during the rest of Pesach to work for earth-healing change at home and in public policy.
Beyond the conventional home and community Seders, could we do Speakout Street Seders for the Earth at some key public places to speak out against the Pharaohs that are cramping the earth into a narrow, lethal pattern?
One possible time might be during the week before Passover, hoping to galvanize public attention and stir conversations at home Seders all over the country. Another: late afternoon on April 22, the third day of Passover — especially appropriate since it is also Earth Day.
Could such Speakout Street Seders for the Earth gather people in many different cities — at Environmental “Protection” Agency regional offices, demanding that EPA permit the states to adopt higher earth-healing standards on CO2 emissions? Or at ExxonMobil offices? Or at congressional offices, with the Lieberman-Warner climate bill coming up for votes around then?
Could we bring matzah and bitter herb, chant the Plagues of today — as we pour wine out of our cups?
A Speakout Seder should be not only a warning, but also a time for joy. At the Pesach 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 each other — the Elijah who turns the hearts of parents and children to each other “lest the earth be utterly destroyed.”