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

Passover Lessons That Can Help Produce a Sustainable Environment

In view of the many current environmental crises that face the world today, this is a good time to consider environmental messages related to Passover and the events and concepts connected to the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt:

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) rapid melting of glaciers and polar ice caps (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 in the number and 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, but modern environmental ‘plagues’ are threatening us simultaneously.

* The Jews in Goshen were spared the Biblical plagues, but 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 hedonism 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.

2. The Passover Seder is a time for questions, including the traditional “four questions.” Four 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 isn’t there more activism in the Jewish community (and other communities) about current environmental threats? Why aren’t Jewish values applied more toward the alleviation of environmental problems? Why aren’t more Jews vegans, or at least vegetarians, since animal-based diets are a major contributor to climate change because of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, emitted from cows, and because vast areas of the world that could be reforested and sequester much current atmospheric CO2, bringing it to a safe level, are instead used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals.

3. Rabbi Jay Marcus, rabbi emeritus 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 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 nine million of the world’s people die of hunger and its effects annually and over ten percent of the world’s people are chronically hungry. Simpler diets would have positive environmental effects since modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes significantly to climate change, 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. The Talmud 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 (Sota 11a). 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 negative consequences may follow.

6. According to 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). Today, about seventy billion animals are raised annually worldwide for slaughter, mainly on factory farms under very cruel conditions, and raising food and providing water for these animals and getting rid of their wastes cause many environmental problems.

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, in efforts to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

  There is no Planet B or effective Plan B.

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 JewishVeg.com/schwartz. 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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