Thanks to Hazon’s own Barbara Lerman-Golomb for her environmental reflections and meditations on Passover!
Passover is a natural time to take an “environmental inventory” of the chametz in our world and to be mindful of the simple lives our ancestors led in the desert in their pursuit of freedom. Chametz is the Hebrew term for any of the five basic biblical grains which traditionally observant Jews remove from their homes. These include wheat, rye, oats, barley, and spelt—that have been mixed with water and allowed to ferment. Eastern European Jews also consider chametz to include a variety of beans, peas, rice, corn, peanuts, and other foods which could be ground and made into flour or bread.
When our ancestors were dwelling in the desert, they had no choice but to live simply. In our day, simplicity has come to mean conservation, not using more than you need, and not being wasteful. Jewish law prohibits wasteful consumption. When we waste resources, we are violating the law of bal tashchit—Do not destroy. (Deuteronomy 20: 19-20).
Matzah itself is a symbol of simplicity and humility, and is a metaphor for getting back to basics and our natural selves. It is in contrast to our leavened or puffed up, over-inflated selves caught up in accumulation and over-consumption. In A Night of Questions, A Passover Haggadah, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld further explains the paradox of matzah. Not only was it the bread that our ancestors did not have time to let rise as they fled Egypt, but it is also the bread that they ate as slaves. Yet, even in its simplicity, it was filling and satisfying—supporting the old adage that less is more. And since matzah is the bread that took us from slavery to freedom, it is also a symbol of the possibility for change. We can use this as an inspiration for making the kind of changes and choices that lead to a more sustainable lifestyle.
We need to take immediate steps to initiate these changes and to slow down the rate in which we are destroying, depleting, and wasting our natural resources.
The current way we generate and use energy, for example, threatens the health and existence of all creation. Because of our excessive and inefficient burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) to produce energy, with less than 5% of the world’s population, the US produces 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions that create air pollution and contribute to climate change and global warming. Climate change is causing a rise in sea levels resulting in flooding; drought resulting in famine; the destruction of natural habitats endangering species; and an increase in the rates of asthma, respiratory illness and infectious diseases.
These environmental plagues are a reminder that climate change is an issue of justice. We are already witnessing that those most vulnerable–low-income communities, indigenous peoples, the elderly, and children–those who can least afford health care or to relocate when faced with economic or cultural displacement are suffering disproportionately. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue, in order that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Pikuach nefesh teaches us that saving a life is paramount to all else. Our ancestors took the steps to save themselves and future generations as they fled from slavery to freedom. We need to break free from the wasteful consumption that enslaves us to ensure our own survival.
Energy conservation is actually an ancient mitzvah. Rav Zutra, in the Talmud (Shabbat 67b), mandates fuel efficiency saying that those who burn more fuel than necessary violate the law of not wasting (bal tashchit). Let us be inspired this holiday season by the simple lives our ancestors led and take action towards the greening of our homes and synagogues. To begin the process, conduct an energy audit: Turn the thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer; Switch to compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs that use 75% less energy than regular incandescent bulbs and last seven times longer; Adjust the water temperature on your hot water heater to 110 Fahrenheit; Contact your pubic utility and find out how you can purchase clean, safe, renewable energy; Commit to making your next automobile a fuel efficient hybrid or high-mileage (over 30 mpg average) vehicle. Work towards water conservation, waste management, and toxics reduction. In fact, while removing the chametz in preparation for Passover, consider freeing your home of chemical cleaners and other toxins. Determine the proper way to dispose of these products based on waste management facilities in your community and replace them with more natural substitutes that do not threaten the health of you and your family.
Just as our ancestors left their footprints in the sand and greatly impacted all those who followed, we too are leaving our eco-footprints on Earth. This Passover let us step lightly and work towards removing the chametz from our world that threatens the health of our planet and its inhabitants. And, let us convey to our children the moral and imperative message of simplicity through our deeds. Dayenu!