Preparing for Passover: Readings for the Seder Table
by Stewart Vile Tahl
Every year we celebrate Passover, commemorating our people's liberation from slavery over 3,000 years ago by retelling the story of our Exodus from Egypt. Every year we have the opportunity to find new meaning in that story. This year, 2003, Earth Day falls on the first day of Passover, providing an opportunity to focus on the connection between the story of our liberation from slavery and the current struggle to liberate ourselves from individual and societal patterns that are destroying our environment.
As part of Operation Noah, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) has developed the following materials for Passover to help you explore the ways in which over consumption and materialism "enslave" us as individuals and as a society and threaten the survival of other species and our planet. These materials use the concept of Dayenu, of "enoughness" as a concept that can liberate us and enrich our lives while protecting God's creation in all of its glorious diversity.
This exploration is based on four truths about us and our present world. A first truth is that while human beings have, in many different times and places, over-exploited their natural resource base and have perished or had to move elsewhere, never before in human history have we over-exploited on the same global scale as now. Major eco-systems across the planet are in trouble. The biological foundations of human life - the living systems that provide us with food, clean water, and a stable climate are in many ways seriously imperiled. These trends are already resulting in the extinction of thousands of species.
A second truth is that to a large extent, the material and human resources of the world are now organized to feed the consumption habits of the wealthiest 1/5 of the world's population. We tend to take for granted the material comforts of our society and tend not to see the real costs of those comforts to other people and ecosystems around the world. Our lifestyle seems "normal" to us, and most of us would not consider ourselves extravagant consumers. Yet we in the US consume, on average 10 or more times as much of the earth's resources as someone living in China, India, or another developing country.
A third truth is that the actions we can take to preserve our planetary ecosystem, reducing damaging consumption of the Earth's resources is among the most important and necessary. Many people assume that overpopulation is the biggest threat to the integrity of our planetary ecosystems, but the places where overpopulation is the biggest threat to the integrity of our planetary ecosystems, but the places where overpopulation seems to be the biggest problem are also the places where people consume the least. A child growing up in Bangladesh, for example, consumes less than 1/100th as much commercial energy (oil, gas, electricity, etc.) as a child growing up in the US. In order to successfully address the threats to our global environment, we in the industrialized countries, especially North America, need to change our consumption habits.
To fourth truth, a spiritual truth, is that once our basic physical needs are met, we have other, higher needs - spiritual fulfillment, self-esteem, family, community, and meaningful work. These needs are not satisfied through more material comfort. Indeed, having more in a material sense often stifles the satisfaction of our non-material needs. Studies have shown that above a certain level of material comfort, our relative happiness actually declines with increasing wealth.
Passover is rich with teachings we can use to live more sustainably and happily on earth. One of the names for Passover is Z'man Chay-Ru-Tay-Nu, the time of our freedom. As we go through this holiday, let's think about the degree to which we are enslaved by our addiction to material things. Let's think about what it costs us as individuals, families, and communities to pursue the consumptive lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. Let's think about what our real material needs are and how they might be satisfied at less cost to each other and to the rest of life on the planet. Let's think about who our Pharaohs are - the forces in our society and within each of us that make us want more and more. Let's think about who are Moses's are - who, within us and around us, can help us break out of patterns of over consumption and materialism? Let's think about the other ways in which Judaism in general and Passover in particular can help us lead happier , more fulfilling, and less consumptive lives.
Who is Rich? Those who are content with their portion. Pirke Avot
No matter what their income, a depressing number of Americans believe that if they only had twice as much, they would inherit the estate of happiness promised them in the Declaration of Independence. The man who receives $15,000 a year is sure that he could relieve his sorrow if he had only $30,000 a year: the man with $1 million a year knows that all would be well if he had $2 million a year...Nobody has enough.
- Lewis Lapham, Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion, 1988
How does our consumption lead to the endangerment of other species? There are three major ways.
1. We physically alter or destroy the ecosystems in which many species live when we log virgin forests for wood and paper products; when we build sprawling cities that destroy wetlands; when we turn vast areas of land into agro-industrial zones.
2. We pollute habitats, putting toxic materials and excessive levels of nutrients into species' homes when we release toxic industrial byproducts into rivers, lakes, and oceans; when pesticides leach into water; when we release sulfur into the air which falls as acid rain on forests; when mining and processing of metals pollutes watersheds; when poorly managed land erodes into streams.
3. We contribute to changes in the world's atmosphere and climate in ways that cause harm to many species when we burn fossil fuels; when we destroy forests; when we release ozone-destroying chemicals into the atmosphere.
SPIRITUAL PREPARATION FOR PASSOVER
On the day before Passover, it is a custom to search throughout one's home for any
trace of chametz -- leavening. One way of looking at Chametz/Leaven is as the ways in which your life is "bloated" in a material sense - the stuff and activities that are superfluous to and distracting from the fulfillment of your deepest dreams and goals. Identifying your "Chametz"
Look around your house for the "stuff" that isn't really important to you. Identify the "stff" that encumbers more than it liberates. Roughly calculate the hours of your life-energy you devoted to earning enough to acquire this "stuff". Examine how you spend your time and identify the activities that are "Chametzdik", unnecessary expenditures of your time and life-energy spent in pursuit of things that are irrelevant or distracting to the life purposes you identified above. What would living a "Chametz-free" life for a week be like?
IDENTIFYING YOUR "MATZAH"
Matzah is called "simple bread" or "poor man's bread." One way of looking at Matzah is as those simple activities and things that truly nourish you and help you accomplish your deepest dreams. What Matzah can you identify in your life? What are the physical items in your household that really do nourish you and assist you in the fulfillment of your dreams? What are the "Matzahdik" activities in your life, those activities that bring your closer to the fulfillment of your life's purposes? Identifying your Mitzrayims
What Mitzrayims, what "straits and limitations," can you identify in your own life? To what are you enslaved? In what areas of your life are you in need of liberation? Making a Personal Exodus
In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally left Egypt. The Haggadah
How might you use this information is preparing for and carrying out your own "Exodus", your own journey of liberation this Passover? What "Chametz" would you like to eliminate and what "Matzah" would you like to "ingest" more of during the week of Passover in order to help you break free from some of your "Mitzrayims"?
Making a Communal Exodus
The original Exodus was much more than a collection of personal liberations. It was a collective liberation, a liberation of an entire people. How can we engage our society in an Exodus from materialism and over-consumption? How do we begin the journey towards the Promised Land, a land rich in community, rich in opportunities for the development of our human potential, and rich in relationships with each other and the rest of the planet?
Their land is full of silver and gold, there is no limit to their treasure. Their land is full of horses, there is not limit to their chariots. And so their land is full of idols: they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have wrought.
The upper classes in any society are more satisfied with their lives than the lower classes are, but they are no more satisfied than the upper classes of much poorer societies - nor than the upper classes were in the less affluent past. Consumption is thus a treadmill, with everyone judging their status by who is ahead and who is behind.