Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

Applying Passover Messages Can Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet

There are many Passover-related messages that can be applied to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path:

1. Today’s environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues:

* When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, we can easily enumerate ten modern “plagues”. For example: (1) climate change; (2) depletion of the ozone layer; (3) destruction of tropical rain forests; (4) acid rain; (5) soil erosion and depletion; (6) loss of biodiversity; (7) water pollution; (8) air pollution; (9) an increase of severity of storms and floods; (10) increased use of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other toxic chemicals.

* The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, while the modern plagues are threatening us simultaneously.

* The Jews in Goshen were spared the Biblical plagues, while today every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.

* Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats.

* God provided the Biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today we must apply God’s teachings in order to save ourselves and our precious but endangered planet.

Because of the above factors, some Jews have started 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 insufficient attention in the Jewish community (and other communities) about current environmental threats? Why aren’t Jewish values sufficiently applied toward the alleviation of environmental problems?

3. Rabbi Jay Marcus, former 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” (dessert) in the seder service. He concluded that those who live on simpler foods (greens, for example) will more readily divide their possessions 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 an estimated nine0 million of the world’s people die annually of hunger and its effects. Simpler diets 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 Pharaoh; he refused to take a stand when Pharaoh 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,” and the resultant very negative environmental effects. Contrary to Jewish teachings of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (the Torah mandate not to cause unnecessary “sorrow 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 view of the above points, Passover would be a wonderful time to increasingly apply Jewish values in response to the many current environmental threats to humanity.

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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