The elements of the Jewish Passover Seder, both ancient ritual and dinner, feel timeless. This year, in the context of isolation and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, those elements are also timely and poignant—the herbs on the Seder plate that symbolize the bitterness of suffering and oppression, the repeated washing of hands, the recital of plagues, the promise of homecoming and the gratitude and celebration for a journey into freedom.
Traditionally the Passover Haggadah is a physical book with text that participants read from at the Seder table. There are various Haggadahs with differences in interpretations and stories. This year, when friends and families are physically separated, many will celebrate Passover with a virtual Seder and perhaps, their Haggadah on a Kindle or iPad. Despite isolation and electronics, those looking for the solace and inspiration of a Seder that reconnects them to the Earth may turn to a new Haggadah by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, “The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah.”
In this excerpt from the introduction, Bernstein explains that her Haggadah grows from Judaism grounded in an understanding of the sanctity of our human relationship to nature. “The Promise of the Land” shares this profound spirituality with all readers—including virtual guests at the Seder table.
Introduction in Four Questions
Why a new Haggadah for Passover? On Passover we celebrate the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to freedom and the coming of spring. We tell the story year after year. Yet, for every story about peoplehood, there is a backstory about land and the natural world. Our biblical holidays commemorate the harvest and the land, the very soil out of which Judaism grew. The Haggadah, the Jewish people’s origin story, is necessarily embedded in an earthy reality. Today, we are deeply aware that our well-being and our freedom depend on the Earth’s well-being. If the Earth and its systems are compromised, our freedom is compromised; life is compromised. This Haggadah seeks to enlarge our focus. It seeks to reveal the Seder’s ecological dimensions and awaken its quiescent environmental meaning.
How is this Haggadah different from other Haggadot? The Haggadah you have in your hands is traditional in some respects and modern in others. It follows the ancient instructions for Passover to read the entire passage that begins “My father was a wandering Aramean,” which recaps Judaism’s origin story. Curiously, the very first Haggadah, which was composed hundreds of years after the instructions for the Seder were written down, never actually cited the whole passage. The early rabbis dropped the last two verses, about land. Yet these deleted verses transmit a deep ecological message. This Haggadah retrieves these two verses, re-establishing them at the heart of the Seder, restoring the environmental significance of Judaism’s central story.
What is “the promise of the land”? “The promise of the land” refers to the primary blessing that God gives all the ancestors in the Bible: eretz, or land. That the Hebrew word eretz means not just “land” but also “earth” conveys a profound ecological sense. The land or earth is the home of the swimming creatures, the flying creatures, the walking, climbing, crawling, hopping, and sprinting creatures, and us. The land, the Earth, is our habitat, and we are its inhabitants. Land or earth is the most precious blessing a people can receive—it is the source of sustenance; it is the promise of life, the promise of freedom. Unfortunately, many people regard land as lifeless and inert—real estate to be bought and sold or territory to be acquired and owned. And many Jews conflate “land” with the land of Israel only. If people view land this way, the whole subject of land invariably turns economic or political, and the deeper ecological meaning of land is lost. When we approach the Seder with a broader appreciation of land—its spiritual, aesthetic, and ecological value—the Haggadah reveals its deep environmental meaning.
Who is this Haggadah for? This Haggadah is intended for those who are curious and want to dig deep. It understands the Passover story in universal and mythic terms. It is written for people with little or no background in Judaism as well as those with strong backgrounds—be they religious, spiritual, or secular. It aspires to reconnect participants to the beauty of the holiday and the world, while exploring essential questions about who we are and where we come from.
Two Elements of the Passover Seder
Yachatz—Splitting. Matzah is the central symbol of Passover; Passover is even called chag hamatzot, the holiday of matzah. Matzah is the simplest of all foods—wheat and water, humble pie. It is parched, dry, and unassuming like the desert. When we consider matzah relative to bread, one of its meanings becomes clear. Bread is the puffed-up version of wheat, far removed from the flour and the earth from which it comes. In the context of Passover, bread symbolizes the additives and excesses that weigh us down and enslave us. Matzah reminds us of what bread would like us to forget.
Passover is the path back to basics—the earth, the wheat, and water—and our essential selves. Passover teaches that freedom comes when we rid ourselves of the burden of too much. For now, we simply admire the matzah and reflect on it—the root food of our peoplehood.
The broken matzah is symbolic of our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world. Some of us have broken with the past—we may have lost a sense of history and a connection to our ancestors. Others may feel broken or detached from our earthy home. We may have lost touch with the natural world and all that it gives us freely each day.
The whole matzah represents wholeness and freedom—it is the food of liberation that the Israelites ate as they hurried out of Egypt. It helps us to retrieve lost parts of ourselves so we may become whole again.
Maggid—Telling. The word Haggadah derives from the Hebrew word l’haggid, which means “to tell.” It is related to the word maggid, which means “story” or “telling.” We tell the Passover story to remember who we are and where we came from.
On one hand, matzah represents our poverty; on the other, it signifies our freedom. The ancient rabbis said that a fundamental requirement for fulfilling the Passover obligation was to tell the story of moving from degradation to freedom, and that story is told right here in the matzah. The telling of our story begins with wide-open arms. The Seder bids us to invite those who are hungry to partake of our meal. It also bids us to invite those who are hungry in spirit—lonely, lost, heartsick. We bring everybody into the circle, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, age, and religion. The freedom we aspire to depends on our sharing.
This edited excerpt from The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah by Ellen Bernstein (Behrman House, 2020) appears by permission of the author.
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein has been called “the birth mother of the Jewish environmental movement.” She founded Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, the first national Jewish environmental organization, in 1988. Her books include "The Splendor of Creation," "Ecology & the Jewish Spirit," and "Let the Earth Teach You Torah." This year, Ellen is helping seed and support communitywide, ecologically rooted Passover Seders around the country.