Passover: Placing Ourselves in the Story
David Miron-Wapner shares a powerful message that was delivered at The Temple in Atlanta on March 23 during Shabbat service. David was in Georgia to attend the Eco-Symposium on Theological Education hosted by Columbia Theological Seminary. David is Board chair of The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development based in Israel.
As we anticipate Pesach, I offer you an eco-spiritual message that the story of Pharaoh and our liberation from Egypt parallels the situation facing humanity today in confronting the climate crisis.
Humanity only recently has acquired the God-like power to disrupt the Earth’s natural systems. By burning fossil fuels we impact systems of interactive and mutually re-enforcing feedback loops, like the release of methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, caused by the warming of long-frozen tundra in arctic regions. Earth’s systems were created over the eons for a purpose – to support Life. Not just human life. Not just now. All life, for millennia to come, in all its glorious, wondrous, diverse and awesome forms.
Pharaoh, the human embodiment of divine power, repeatedly refused Moses’ entreaties in spite of mounting and devastating evidence of a greater power. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Like Pharaoh, we have heard the incontrovertible scientific evidence, the real facts. We are bringing Plagues upon ourselves with every particle, ounce and every ton of CO2 we emit; drought, wildfires, floods, melting ice sheets, acidification of oceans, massive coral reef bleaching, loss of biodiversity, scorching heat, intense hurricanes, species extinction. We are hardened, feeling powerless, when indeed liberation is in our own hands.
While “hardened” is the popular English translation, in a revealing passage, Deuteronomy 10:15 uses the same Hebrew word in speaking of the heart being covered, trapped and impenetrable, literally “uncircumcised.”
Today’s overwhelming scientific evidence has not fully penetrated humanity’s heart. Like Pharaoh, we have refused to heed the facts in front of our eyes that continuing our conveniently wasteful practices is perilous. Humanity today is enslaved by its addiction to fossil fuels. Though possessing knowledge of its harm to us, we continue to drill, frack, and extract every last drop of ancient sunlight trapped below the surface.
In my telling of the story, Pharaoh is the one addicted, both to the free labor of B’nei Israel slaves and to his own image as all-powerful. As with “Mitzrayim”, we hold fast to the constricting illusion of endless growth and development, that Earth’s ecological limits can be ignored with impunity.
The Haggadah instructs us to place ourselves in the narrative, to feel it as a living story for our times. We need to see both the Moses and the Pharaoh within. See ourselves as if we too are liberated from Mitzrayim, the narrow place, the place of constriction, the place of addiction. At the same time we need to look honestly and courageously at ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge that inside we too each carry the arrogant oppressor.
Today, ours are the hearts encased. Enslaved by an illusion of separateness, from one another, from other species, from the Earth itself. How do we remove the covering on our hearts and help others do so as well? Once opened, freed of its outer shell, how do we soften our hearts, especially men, and prevent reverting to old patterns of abusing our power?
Let’s consider now the story of B’nei Israel, a large clan living at the western edge of the Fertile Crescent in the heart and cradle of the agricultural revolution. As a traditional people in an imperial backwater, B’nei Israel lived on a smaller scale than the far greater, urbanized civilization of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Their culture, in tune with the fragile ecology between the desert and the sea, revolved around the land and its seasons.
A persistent drought made life in the Land of Israel unsustainable. Springs, streams and reservoirs dried up. Crops withered. Pastures become barren. B’nei Israel had not prepared. They did not see it coming. Maybe they were in denial.
A similar drama of drought and its far reaching consequences plays out again today in our region in neighboring Syria. Strong evidence suggests that the chaos, brutality and refugee crises stem from a 2006-2010 drought of a magnitude not seen for over 900 years. Syrians sought refuge, first in the already overcrowded cities of a collapsing state; then, in Europe, where the iconic image of a lifeless boy on a Greek beach aroused universal compassion, but far too little action, too slowly delivered.
At first B’nei Israel fared better than modern Syrians. Joseph, a beloved son of the tribe’s patriarch, had stunningly ascended to the pinnacle of power in neighboring Egypt because his shepherding experience allowed him alone to interpret the evidence hidden in Pharaoh’s dreams. With his unique abilities, he was put in charge of organizing resilience to the changing regional climatic conditions. Therefore Joseph was in a position to offer his refugee family asylum.
Initially, all was harmonious for B’nei Israel in Egypt. By the time the drought was over, the clan had re-settled amidst its hosts.
Long after Joseph, B’nei Israel become trapped in “Mitzrayim” exploited, oppressed and enslaved, yet still clinging to its original identity. They sought liberation from the bondage of constriction they themselves were building brick by brick, to celebrate wilderness wandering and get back to tending their own gardens.
Let me offer a few practical lessons to alleviate the climate crises that we might learn this Pesach. Symbolic blessings call upon us to deepen our awareness of the sources and real costs of what we consume; of the impact of pesticides and herbicides on human and environmental health; and of industrialized agri-business on soil and water. We can demand and purchase fresher, local food alternatives. We can consume less meat. We can reduce waste. We can compost, as individuals and as communities. All of it is in our power. Above all we must end our addiction to fossil fuels.
The Pesach story wisely teaches an inter-generational perspective. It is a story of hope, liberation and redemption. What we do matters, here and now, and to countless generations of our people to follow. Concerted, dedicated action offers hope and empowers our own redemption and renewal.
Let us resolve this Pesach to adopt new ways of living as an integral part of the ecology surrounding us. Let us seek new ways of being in harmony with the source of all life, Shechinat makor chai’einu, the feminine side of God; the source of liberation; the source of nurturing. May we be blessed this Pesach with the capacity to open ourselves, to soften, to repent, to become more receptive, turning towards a new balance in our relationship to others and to the only home we know.