Passover is around the corner and nowhere could we feel it more than here at the Center for Eco-Judaism – farm and ranch home to two Aleph rabbis, Elisheva Brenner (me) and husband, Dr. Hersh Saunders. Our home is on 415 acres of high chaparral just before the Wet Mountains of Southern Colorado. I imagine that this land is much like the land our ancient Hebraic ancestors encountered. We settled here hoping that living on the land would teach us about some of the experiences behind the stories we read in the Torah. Well, the land is a good teacher if we pay attention. So, for Passover, here is a bit of aggadah to go with your Haggadah.
When we first got here the land was covered with garbage and overgrown with weeds. Newbies that we were, we thought we’d be doing the land and ourselves a favor if we tilled the soil for first planting. As our tractor ripped the Earth, a spring opened in the middle of the field. It was full of iron, creating an oozing stream of red-brown sludge. Soon, iron-eating algae found its way into the stream, turning it blood red. DAM.
By taking down the weeds, we disturbed the habitat of the many snakes that lived here. How could we know that they controlled the immense toad population from the St. Charles River that flows through this land? Soon enough, we had toads jumping, dying, stinking, croaking everywhere. They were under our feet, in our dogs’ mouths, in the planting rows, under our tires. I mean everywhere. The whole place smelled like dead toad! T’ZFARDE’AH.
Next came the flea beetles. We had disturbed their habitat as well. We watched in horror as they ate out row after row of our crops. There was nothing we could do if we didn’t want to spray poison. We would have to learn how to plant trap fields—places full of things flea beetles like to eat more than our crops, and how to time our planting around their appetite. But that first year we didn’t yet know how to live with the critters that came with the place. KINIM.
Stinging flies came in swarms around our new, young flock of Barbados Blackbelly sheep. They stung us, too. A lot. I’m pretty sure they actually like the smell of insect repellant. After a few seasons we learned that if we invited trichogramma – a kind of parasitic wasp -to nest here, they would take care of the stinging flies. But then…AROV.
By now, you probably think I am making this up. But I’m not. Mid-Spring we found one of our sheep lying dead. Horrified, we took her carcass to the veterinary center at Colorado State University in Rocky Ford. The vet who did the autopsy told us that our sheep had contracted a virulent, deadly strain of something that could affect our whole flock. “What should we do?” I asked. “’Bout all you can do is pray,” the vet said. DEVER.
We got skin rashes from bug bites, touching allergenic plants, ragweed and puncture vine… SHe’KHEEN. A major hail-storm destroyed our tomatoes in mid-Summer… BARAD. And a grasshopper horde swarmed across the mesa, not doing much to us, but wiping out a lot of crops in the area… ARBEH.
Thank God we only experienced eight out of ten of the plagues mentioned in the Passover story. But we did experience them. The “plagues” that we experienced are arguably, in one way or another, the result of major disruptions to natural ecology. These are common experiences to farmers and ranchers today, and I’ll bet they were to farmers and shepherds in biblical times. So, what did people do in past times when their crops and their flocks were destroyed? They often sold themselves and their children into servitude.
“Wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “What do you mean, ‘these were probably experienced by our ancestors?’ They didn’t face the kind of global environmental/ecological issues we face today!”
Guess again! Our ancestors were no strangers to the link between agricultural problems and servitude. Historical, climatological and archeological studies show that throughout the period beginning with Terach’s migration from Ur of Chaldea to the proposed time of the Exodus – by whatever theory – agricultural decline was a major factor in ancient Near Eastern politics. The Mesopotamia of Terach and Abraham engaged in state-controlled monocropping. They did not periodically rest their land or rotate crops. Eventually, their wheat crops failed. They changed to barley cropping. Barley yields eventually declined, as well. Available irrigated grassland became scarce. The agriculturalists did not want shepherds to graze sheep on those lands. In Terach’s days, it became illegal to shepherd anywhere but Padan Aram – the ancestral homeland of Abraham, Sarai, Lot, Rebecca, Lavan, Rachael and Leah. In Egypt, similar problems were occurring well before the time of Joseph. There, shepherding was only allowed in Goshen. It is no wonder that Joseph sent his brothers to live in Goshen. When I read the story about Joseph and his agricultural and land reforms, I can’t help but think of today’s Farm Bill. And when I read of the plight of the shepherds, I think of the wars between ranchers and farmers, and the modern move to feed lots.
Climate change was also a major problem back then. Just like today, there was a global warming trend that greatly impacted the lives of our Hebraic ancestors. Drought was a problem throughout the region. Egyptian records from the 16th century BCE show that the Nile was so low that they had to change their military strategy for going into Nubia, and Thutmose III, thought by some to be the Pharoah of the Exodus, expanded Egypt all the way to the Euphrates River. He made the conquered peoples in the Northern areas of the Empire produce food for the Nile regions, placing such harsh conditions on them that they were no better than slaves. The warming and drying trend continued, peaking in the late 13th century BCE, when the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were severely diminished. We can imagine how the worsening conditions over the centuries might have been an underlying factor in God’s statement to Abraham that the Egyptians would oppress his people for 400 years (Gen 15:13).
So, how does this knowledge affect us? We are commanded to experience Passover as if we were there. By realizing that many of the problems of “then” are still with us “now,” we begin to understand that in a way, we are there! We are called upon each year to make a journey from slavery to freedom. Yet, many of us don’t stop to think that our freedom and the freedom of those who come after us is affected by climate and agricultural politics today just as it was back then. Judaism requires us to be responsible stewards of the Earth. As part of your Seder, ask what you can do to help bring about human and environmental sustainability so that all who are hungry can come and eat—and not just the bread of affliction. From the Center for Eco-Judaism, here’s wishing you and yours an abundant, liberating and sustainable Passover!
Rabbi Elisheva Brenner, JD, LPC, NCC, “the foodie rabbi,” will be teaching ECO-JUDAISM: THE TORAH MANDALA AND THE MYSTICAL SYSTEM OF SUSTAINABILITY at Kallah 2013. To learn more about her work see her website at www.centerforecojudaism.com. Aside from her work as director of the Center for Eco-Judaism, where she is a rabbi, teacher, farmer and rancher, she is usually cooking.