Passover: Street Seders for the Global Climate Crisis

Prepared by Rabbi Jeff Sultar
Director, Green Menorah Program of The Shalom Center

This year, Passover converges with Earth Day. And it does so at a time when the global climate crisis can no longer be ignored, calling for us to take bold action. Taking inspiration from "street theater," we propose holding "street seders" during Passover to oppose the pharaohs in our own day. A "pharaoh" is anyone (or anything) that enslaves us, that puts limitations on our lives from the outside or from the inside.

What personal, economic and political pharaohs need to be confronted this year, in order to pull our climate back from the brink of crisis? What does it mean to heed the call from Exodus to remember the most disenfranchised in our country and throughout the world, to act on behalf of those who are most immediately and deeply affected by climate change?

Let's bring matzah, bitter herbs and chanting of the environmental plagues of today to the ten regional Environmental Protection Agency offices, in protest of its refusal to allow California and eighteen other states to institute greenhouse gas emission standards that are stricter than federal levels. Let's bring street seders to ExxonMobil offices in five or six cities around the country. Let's make our voices heard at congressional offices, letting our Senators and Representatives know that legislation such as the Lieberman-Warner "America's Climate Security Act" matters greatly to us, and that we insist that it be strengthened and -- if it is strengthened -- that it eventually actually become the law of the land.

And let's do so in a way that is not only a protest, but also a celebration, a re-affirmation, of our power to free ourselves from limitations both external and internal. At Passover, we invoke Elijah the Prophet, as the harbinger of a world redeemed through the actions that we take.

Here is a suggested street seder to adapt and to use. For more resources, for further suggestions, and to let us know about the street seder that you are holding, please contact us at

Suggested Time for Street Seders:
* Third day of Passover is April 22, which is also Earth Day
* Or any other weekday during Passover (April 21, 23-25)
* Or a weekday prior to Passover, so that media coverage will influence discussions at seders during Passover
* Or incorporate elements of Street Seder into seders on first 2 nights of Passover
* Or incorporate into Shabbat observance just hours before Passover begins on April 19 (Shabbat HaGadol)

Possible Targets:
* At one of ten regional EPA offices, focusing on demanding EPA's permission for states to adopt greenhouse gas emission standards higher than federal levels (regional offices located in Boston, Dallas, New York City, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle)
* At ExxonMobil offices in five or six cities around the country
* At congressional offices, urge strengthening of the Warner-Lieberman "America's Climate Security Act"

Need: shank bone or Paschal yam; matzah, maror (bitter herb); cup with wine or grape juice (or water)

The Seder Begins:

Let all who are hungry for a healthy global climate come and speak.

B'ruchim haba'im - welcome, to all of us who've gathered together today during these days of Passover, coming together to stand up against the Pharaohs of our own time.

The ancient Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, a place that in Hebrew was called mitzraiyim, meaning "the extremely narrow place." We stand up today in the midst of our own "extremely narrow place," as we face an unprecedented global climate crisis And we stand up today during what is also a Spring festival, to celebrate life and our commitment to making sure that it continues to thrive on this planet Earth.

Four Questions for Today:

Can sing the first line, and then continue as a wordless melody: Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?
[Literally: Why is this night different from all other nights?]

Why is this blight different from all other blights?

For other blights we can be concerned only for ourselves, why for this blight must we be concerned for others?

Because the climate crisis effects everyone on planet Earth, since the atmosphere does not respect the political boundaries that nations erect between themselves.

For other blights, we might not really know what's happening, why for this blight are we so sure?

Because there is a scientific consensus that human action is leading to global climate temperatures increasing - can we muster up the will to do something about it?

For other blights, the problem might seem too hard or too distant for us to do anything about it; why for this blight is it possible for us to make a difference?

Because each one of us contributes daily to the crisis - each one of us uses energy, each one of us causes carbon dioxide to be released into the air. And therefore each one of us can daily make a positive change to address the crisis.

For other blights, it can seem impossible to get the attention of politicians. How can we do so for this blight?

Because already, key members of Congress are taking bold leadership to address the global climate crisis. And we need to actively support their efforts. Though the federal government is not moving quickly enough, there's an inspiring move by local and state leaders to put necessary changes into place even while the national government plods along. We must call for and support these initiatives as well.

Three Elements of Any Passover Seder:

Rabban Gamliel used to say: Whoever does not explain the following three things at the Passover festival has not fulfilled their duty, namely: the Passover sacrifice, Matzah and Maror.

1. Passover Sacrifice:

Hold up the shank bone or Paschal yam, pass it around:

This shank bone/Paschal yam that we put on our seder plate represents idolatry. The ancient Egyptians worshiped the lamb. And so to sacrifice a lamb right under the Egyptians' noses was an act of defiance, one of the first ways that the ancient Israelites began to throw off the shackles of slavery. The shank bone/Paschal yam in our own day represents saying and doing what is right, in defiance of what the Pharaoh's in our own day tell us to say and do.

Who are the Pharaohs in our own day? Who tells us what to do, not because it's right but because they tell us to? (Invite responses from people gathered there).

How about George W. Bush, who for so long denied that there even was a global climate crisis, as he himself served his buddies in the oil industry in Texas and Saudi Arabia? Whose delegation at the United Nations Climate Talks in Bali, Indonesia this past December obstructed progress toward world action to address the global climate crisis?

How about Stephen Johnson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who this past December denied California and 18 other states the ability to set greenhouse gas emission standards stricter than federal levels?

How about Senators and Representatives who serve those who pay the most money, at the expense of those who pay the most dearly for short-sighted and self-serving policies?

How about the leaders of the oil and automobile industries, who enrich themselves at the expense of planet Earth? Who devise ever-more ingenious ways to entice us to waste more resources, to deplete more energy reserves, and to burn more carbon into the air, while their own pockets deepen and the global climage worsens?

The hearts of pharaohs too often, as in the Exodus story, become hardened. So that an overwhelming scientific consensus about rising climate temperatures can be ignored. So that a unanimous recommendation by EPA legal and policy advisers can be ignored, as in the case of the denial of California's request to enact stricter carbon emission standards.

But we can't just look outside of ourselves, blaming others. Who buys gas guzzling cars? Who allows politicians to get away with serving the interests of Big Business in the present at the expense of our shared future? Who allows Congress to subsidize the coal industry while allowing alternative sources of renewable energy to be underfunded?

In our Passover seder, we read another reason, other than slavery, for our need for redemption: "In the beginning, our ancestors were worshipers of idols." Not only the Egyptians worshiped idols. We did, too!

At Passover, we mark the need for liberation not just from external Pharaohs, but from internal ones as well. Passover is a time to ask not just four questions, but hard questions: In what ways are we addicted to oil? To consumption? To having the newest and the latest and the most advanced? To comfort and convenience that takes a toll and levies a cost that doesn't get tallied up until some later year, off in some distant murky future.

To a lifestyle made possible by the hands of and/or adversely affecting people half a world away, out of sight and too often out of mind?

Passover as a Call for Environmental Justice:

In our seder we read, "In every generation, we are obliged to regard ourselves as though we ourselves had actually gone out from Egypt." We are to remember the experience of being slaves, of being disenfranchised, of being the ones with the least power, with the least resources, with the least people looking out for our welfare and our well-being. We are to remember the experience of being valued only for what we can do, what we can do for others, rather than for our inherent value as human beings.

Environmental degradation in the United States most severely harms those people who are already the ones with the least power. All one needs to do is think of the aftermath to Hurricane Katrina. Or look at asthma rates in lower-income neighborhoods, or exposure rates to toxic waste. Similarly, the global climate crisis most severely harms people in those countries that also have the least.

While we in the United States will be forced to make gradual changes to adapt to a changing climate, people in other countries will face refugee crises and fierce wars over shifting agricultural and water distribution patterns.

And so, on this Passover, we remember avadim haiyinu, that we were slaves.

Can Sing - "We were slaves but now we are free":

Avadim haiyinu, haiyinu, atah beney chorin, beney chorin
Avadim haiyinu atah atah beney chorin.

We remember that we were slaves, doing so in order to remember that our obligation is to help set everyone free. And we don't just sing the words. We commit ourselves to making sure that the moral voice continues to be spoken, ensuring that concern for environmental justice continues to be a part of any public policy. For example, the Lieberman-Warner "America's Climate Security Act" already includes legislation about environmental justice. As this bill is debated and eventually passed, we commit ourselves to making sure that these sections not only survive deliberations, but also that they are strengthened.

2. Matzah

[Distribute pieces of matzah to everyone present; leader holds up piece]

This is the bread of affliction. It represents where our spirits are flat. It represents what happens when we are beaten down, pressed down, and see ourselves as powerless.

But just as matzah literally has two physical sides, so too does it have two sides spiritually. From one perspective it is the bread of affliction, but, when turned over, when seen from the other side, it is also the bread of liberation, of freedom, of power to change our worlds for the better.

How do we make this transformation, from being pressed down to rising up?

To answer this, we must ask: what is the significance of matzah?

Traditionally, we are forbidden to eat or possess chameitz in any form during Passover. Chameitz literally is food with leavening, fermentation, souring, food that swells up. Chasidic teachers, though, saw chameitz metaphorically, as the swelling up of excess in our own lives.

What is metaphorical chameitz in our own day? What is the excess in our lives that we can rid ourselves of, or that we can at least tone down, keep in proper proportion and perspective? [can get responses from gathering]

Chameitz, first of all, can be carbon dioxide. It is the one single element most responsible for the global climate crisis. It is the element that we must immediately reduce our spewing of into the atmosphere.

Chameitz can be seen as overconsumption. Is one lesson of Passover this year that we should simplify our lives?

More specifically, is coal-fired electricity a kind of eco-chameitz? Is our addiction to the over-use of oil, coal and gasoline a eco-chameitz?

Seen this way, what then do we need to do in order to sweep eco-chameitz from our lives? [can get responses from the gathering]

Some answers: switching our households and institutions to wind power and other renewable sources of energy; supporting legislation that supports this switch, as well; getting an energy audit; changing all lightbulbs to CFLs.

Driving less; purchasing fuel-efficient and hybrid cars; supporting public transportation; shopping on-line.

Making green renovations and new buildings. Supporting legislation mandating such measures.

But before we can transform our matzah from the bread of affliction into the bread of liberation, we must face squarely the challenge that we face:

3. Maror

Maror means bitter herbs. It represents the pain of our slavery in Egypt. It represents the harm of our actions today.

In the Exodus story, nearly all of the plagues were environmental in nature. In our own day, we face a daunting array of environmental plagues as well.

[Leader takes cup filled with wine, grape juice or water; small cups filled with same could also be distributed to everyone present]

[Leader invites people to say out loud the names of environmental plagues; as each one is spoken, a drop of wine/grape juice/water is poured out of cups, or drops removed by putting finger into cup]

Can include: undrinkable water in rivers; frogs dying; Great Lakes drying; glaciers melting; polar bears drowning; seacoasts rising, droughts increasing; extreme weather conditions increasing; temperatures rising; unhealthy air quality; increase in forest; floods; changing bird migration; melting of permafrost; spread of infectious diseases; famine; animal and plant extinction.

Throughout the past eight years, here is the legacy of the George W. Bush, that has set back the cause of global climate health:

As I say each action, please follow it by singing the refrain, "Let my people go."
1. Denieds California the Clean Air Act waiver, thus blocking 18 other states from enacting the stricter greenhouse gas emissions standards as well.
Sing: "Let my people go."
2. Interfered with climate change science, revising NASA and other agency documents to remove language regarding climate change, and engaged in a systematic effort to mislead policy makers and the public about the dangers of global warming.
Sing: "Let my people go."
3. Advocated for more nuclear power plants.
Sing: "Let my people go."
4. Opened public land in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska to oil and gas drilling.
Sing: "Let my people go."
5. Declared carbon dioxide not to be a pollutant.
Sing: "Let my people go."
6. Weakened regulations governing air pollution.
Sing: "Let my people go."
7. Rejected the Kyoto Protocol, withdrawing the United States from the global warming treaty.
Sing: "Let my people go."

The Prophetic Promise of Elijah:
What do we do in the face of such a devastating legacy? Fortunately, we are currently in the midst of an election season in which each of the candidates already shows significant awareness and support for action to address the global climate crisis. And a new presidency will bring with it a renewed sense of possibility. This moment is a particularly auspicious one in which to raise up our voices and to take as much individual and institutional action as possible. In so doing, we can create an environment in which we can authentically call upon our leaders to be brave.
On the Shabbat just before Passover, we read the words of the prophet Malachi, who describes God's promise to send Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to parents - "lest the earth be utterly destroyed." This call from 2500 years ago that the generations must work together to heal the earth from the danger of utter destruction comes alive with new force in our generation.
When we sing to welcome Elijah, we are giving voice to our own commitment to take actions in our own day to move this world closer to redemption.

Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu hatishbi
Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu hagiladi
Bimherah veyameynu yavo eleynu
Im mashiach ben David, im mashiach ben David
Elijah the Prophet come speedily to us hailing messianic days.
As we complete this street seder with a vision of a world redeemed through the actions that we take, individually, institutionally and by changes in public policy, let us say:

Next year in a world redeemed through our own actions.

Thank you for coming and helping us to raise our voices together today.

For more information, to let us know how you're using these materials, and to support our work, please visit our Green Menorah websection

You can also contact us at:

Green Menorah Program of The Shalom Center
6711 Lincoln Drive
Philadelphia, PA 19119
(215) 438-2983

(c) The Shalom Center, 2008


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: