Last spring when Rabbi Ellen Bernstein was a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Bet Haverim, part of her discussion was about the radical reinterpretation of the Passover story she was working on.
Bernstein, who has been a pioneer in the Jewish environmental movement, was, at the time, putting the finishing touches on a Passover haggadah that would marry the biblical story of Exodus with the environmental teachings of creation in Genesis.
Little did she imagine, then, that her new haggadah, “The Promise of the Land,” would be published in February just as the world was entering a crisis that mirrors many of the concerns that went into her reading of the Passover story.
“What does freedom really mean?” she asked, when the AJT spoke with her recently. “What freedom really means is for us to have a relationship with a healthy earth. And as long as the earth’s health is compromised, we’re compromised, and our freedom is compromised.”
Bernstein, who founded the first Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah, Guardians of the Earth, in the late 1980s, believes that G-d liberates us so that we can find a way to live in harmony with the earth. Our freedom and well-being, she believes, depends on the earth’s well-being.
“What I have been trying to express my whole life is the importance of appreciating the beauty of nature,” she said, “and illuminate that beauty through our sacred texts. For me, it is up to people to take the steps to care for nature.”
She included in her haggadah the traditional verses from Deuteronomy that are a part of the retelling of the story of our liberation. The verses begin with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt” and goes on to say that G-d rescued us from Egyptian slavery “with a might hand, an outstretched arm and awesome power.”
What Bernstein notes is that the early rabbis cut the last two verses of the passage from their early haggadot. It read that when we finally reached the land of milk and honey we brought “the first fruits of the soil that you, Adonai, have given.”
Adding the missing text, she believes, restores the connection between freedom and our care for the land and the environment.
This Passover she is putting all of her energy into organizing a series of earth seders that would discuss the ideas about the relationship between freedom and the responsibilities we have for G-d’s creation.
Among the co-sponsors of the seder series is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and Hazon, which describes itself as the largest faith-based environmental organization in the country.
In Atlanta, the Earth Seder is being coordinated as an online event at Congregation Bet Haverim by Elizabeth Cohen, who recently received ordination as a spiritual director in ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Cohen believes Jews have a special obligation during this critical time.
“For me, it’s to hold the story of our tradition together with the needs of the world right now,” she said. “We have become used to a way of being and a pace of life that can just grow out of control. In a way it’s sort of a cancerous growth. These eight days of the holiday offer us a way of understanding what we need to do.”
While much of what is happening today is related directly to health and well-being it may also be, according to Cohen, a wake-up call for much more.
“The COVID-19 virus” she said, “has brought to us the need to be more mindful both of the need for us collectively to care for this earth and to care for all our freedoms.”
Bernstein pointed out that shortly after the end of Passover, on April 22, the world will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which is an international celebration in 193 countries.
What she hopes is that her new haggadah and the response to the crisis in which we are immersed will lead us to greater appreciation for much of the natural harmony that is missing in the world today.
“We’re supposed to be partners with G-d and taking care of creation,” she emphasized. “The whole point of our existence is to ensure the perpetuity of creation.”
“The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah,” by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein with artwork by Galia Goodman and published by Behrman House in February, is available on Amazon for $9.95.