Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder
This year for Passover, JTS is proud to share Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder. Passover is an annual reminder that profound changes to our lived reality are possible, and now more than ever, we as a Jewish community need to pursue profound action to stop the climate crisis. This project is sponsored by JTS and Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, with the hope these teachings from the JTS community provide inspiration over this “Zman Cheruteinu” – the season of our liberation – and encouragement to consider what you can do to help liberate our climate from the fossil fuels that threaten our planet every day. We invite you to visit dayenu.org to learn more, and we wish you a chag sameach!
The Holiness of Sharing
Grace Gleason, fifth year rabbinical student
“If the household is too small for a lamb, let it share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.”Exodus 12:3
These are some of the instructions we get regarding the Pesach lamb. A few verses later, we get the instruction in Exodus 12:10, that “You shall not leave any of [the Pesach lamb] over until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it.” These two commandments in concert with each other incentivize the Israelites to share as widely as possible in order to finish the meat instead of burning it – to share it with a neighbor. I’m imaging the night of the Exodus, on which meat was being passed around, forcing neighbors who did not usually dine together to share a meal. In our world, many of us sometimes opt to “burn” or just throw away what we have when we have more than we need, rather than share it – because it is easier or more convenient. The spirit of this commandment is to create conditions under which sharing resources is natural, beneficial. When presented with the options to choose between hoarding or wasting — may we instead choose a third option: to redistribute what we have to someone else, to share widely and generously. The haggadah urges us to consider ourselves as part of a collective, not only with those we live with and amongst now, but to imagine ourselves collectively with our ancestors, as if we had left Egypt. The way toward freedom is in the sharing of what we have.
This is the Bread of Simplicity
Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics
Each Passover I imagine what it must have been like to be a participant in the very first Passover meal. I would have gathered together with my family dressed in travel clothes and partaking of a simple meal of flatbread, greens, and lamb. The meat would not have been boiled or slow-cooked but rather roasted, in the manner of travelers impatient to embark on a journey.
In fact we are all sojourners, none of us able to turn back time nor command all the forces, human and natural, that buffet us as we wander through life. If we know this, if we know that we are visitors here on earth and not permanent residents, then we pack light and live simply.
Pharaoh thought he was a god. His imperious gaze saw both his own people and the despised Israelites as raw material for building monstrous monuments whose only purpose was to celebrate his ascendancy. He valued his Israelite slaves no more than the straw and clay they used to fashion the bricks of which his outsized pyramids were constructed. In his mind, the rising of the Nile was nothing more than nature bowing at his feet.
Then came the plagues, in which God revealed to Pharaoh the consequences of arrogant and thoughtless usurpation. When we treat the life around us – whether human, flora or fauna – as mere instruments for our pleasure and comfort, we subvert the very purpose of creation: to till and to tend, to be partners in perfecting God’s world. We bring about a reversal of creation – the rivers turn to blood, the air is choked with pestilence, diseases spread unchecked, the light of the world is dimmed, the young and innocent suffer and die.
Better to be the Israelites leaving Egypt – to eat simply, partaking of bread easy to bake and not puffed up with pride. Better to live in a simple hut in tune and in touch with nature than in a palace that is built on the ruins of forests and streams and shuts out the cries of the needy and the oppressed. Far better to fling open our doors and shout, “Let all those who are hungry come and eat. Let all those in need partake of our Passover meal.”
May your Pesah be a sweet one.
Climate Change is Overwhelming. Tachanun Can Help. Here’s How.
Anna Boiko-Weyrauch, Master’s Candidate in Sacred Music
“We’re screwed. All of us. Totally screwed.”
I give up.
Can you relate?
That’s how “eco-anxiety” usually manifests for me – that’s the debilitating despair whenever I read about melting glaciers, rising global temperatures, and extreme weather.
It’s easy to get completely overwhelmed and shut down.
So imagine this instead: It’s the not-so-distant future and humanity has been able to curb global temperature rise. You’re looking back on your contribution to the effort – it was meaningful. What do you see? That was the prompt given at a recent workshop I took from the organization, Terra.do, a climate training and career platform. The workshop participants reported feeling a lot calmer after envisioning a hopeful future where they played a role in positive change. That’s key, the trainer explained. We need to feel empowered to overcome our eco-anxiety so we can take action against climate change.
Jewish tradition is full of spiritual fuel.
Rabbi Shefa Gold transforms the Tachanun prayer into “an antidote for overwhelm.”
נִבְהֲלָה נַפְשֵֽׁנוּ מֵרוֹב עִצְּ֒בוֹנֵֽנוּ אַל־תִּשְׁכָּחֵֽנוּ נֶֽצַח: קֽוּמָה וְהוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ כִּי חָסִֽינוּ בָךְ
Rabbi Gold translates the prayer as “Our soul trembles, overwhelmed by sadness, Do not forget us, Arise and save us! For we take shelter in You.”
She writes, “If I can remember at the moment of feeling overwhelmed, to take refuge in God, in the ultimate Compassion of the Universe, then I will not fall victim to the curse to Overwhelm.”
I invite you to take a deep breath and tap into this chant as you imagine looking back on your contribution to the fight against climate change.
Now open your eyes and take the first step.
And if you’d like some direction, check out “Climate Solutions 101,” a free video series on solutions to the climate crisis by the organization, Project Drawdown. And here is a link to hear Rabbi Shefa Gold’s “Medicine for Overwhelm.”
Listening to our Land
Arielle Sabot, Master’s Candidate in Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies, Gershon Kekst Graduate School
Passover has become a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Yes, it marks Pharoah’s triumphant defeat by God, retells Miriam’s brave decision to save her brother, reminds us that the Hebrews are wandering in the desert, and it signifies the early Spring. I believe it also calls us to think about the ‘climate of it all.’ I further believe almost every parsha in the Bible offers us a way to think about land and our relationship to the environment.
We read from Exodus on the first night of Passover “take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin” (Ex. 12:22). Then we are instructed to use the hyssop as a brush to spread blood on the tops of the door and the door posts as a sign that in those homes live the Hebrews. And what is this hyssop that we are to use as a paint brush? Biblically, hyssop is known for its powerful abilities to cleanse that which has been afflicted or has become impure. It also has medicinal qualities that make it popular as a tea and a topical antiseptic.
When God instructs Moses about marking the door posts with blood, God does not say to use hyssop. This could mean one of two things. First, we are not privy to everything God relays to Moses. Second, Moses, knowing about the protective qualities of hyssop, adds this step to ensure further insurance. Either way, the biblical narrator wants us to know that Moses, and likely God, know about what today we might call plant medicine. God’s Earth is rich with wonder. As the land reawakens after a deep, wintery sleep, God reminds us to listen to the land and to the many living things imbued with power. This Passover, I invite you to spend a bit more time listening to and learning from the land – you might find it has a lot to say.
Investing in Mitzvot
Andy Weissfeld, 5th year rabbinical student and Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin, 2nd year rabbinical student
Rabbinic literature contains a lengthy discussion about the specific requirements for fulfilling the mitzvah of eating Matzah on Passover. For example, Pesachim 35a enumerates several ways in which improperly tithed matzah fails to qualify for fulfilling the mitzvah of matzah consumption. Rashi reasons that, הויא לה מצוה הבאה בעבירה – this would be a mitzvah that comes to be fulfilled by means of a transgression.” His phrasing references a specific halakhic principle that forbids performing mitzvot if doing so requires another misbehavior. It is worth noting that mitzvah haba’ah be’aveirah does not mean that the mitzvah is done inappropriately or suboptimally, but rather that the transgression is so significant that it is as though the mitzvah has not been achieved whatsoever.
Given that we no longer tithe grain in the traditional manner, how might we apply the concept of mitzvah haba’ah be’aveirah in a contemporary context? As members of JTS’s Dayenu Circle, a small group of students, staff, and faculty working on climate justice, we are struggling with this question in light of our recent campaign, All Our Might: How the Jewish Community Can Invest in a Just, Livable Future. This initiative supports Jewish institutions in moving their investments away from oil and other polluting industries that destroy our earth. As students, we are grateful that our institution’s investments go toward scholarships, books, and many other costs that help us, and thousands of Jews, fulfill the central mitzvah of Torah study. Yet, in light of the prohibition of Mitzvah Ha’Baah B’Aveirah, is it permissible to learn in a beit midrash or from holy books purchased by money raised through investments in oil companies that destroy the earth? We don’t claim to know the answer, we merely aim to engage with this question as we strive to live holistic and authentic Jewish lives.
The notion of Mitzvah Ha’Baah B’Aveirah serves as a safeguard against adopting a mindset that any ends will justify the means. We are reminded here of Reb Yaakov Yitchak of P’shischa’s interpretation of the doubling in the classic Deuteronomic צדק צדק תרדוף – justice, justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20); he understands it as an injunction to pursue justice justly, that is, to ensure that just means are used to achieve just ends. As we strive for renewed liberation this Pesach, may we remember to utilize just means in order to avoid Mitzvah Ha’Baah B’Aveirah and ensure that even the most mundane measures of our daily life are thoroughly rooted in Jewish values.