Each year we read the story of our exodus from Egypt during the Pesach seder. The story is one of human liberation from oppression. Yet, most of the imagery we encounter, the drama of the story so to speak, involves nature: a river that saves a baby, a burning bush, the plagues, the re(e)d sea, the wilderness, lack of food and water and the promised land itself. What does this mean?
In general, it means that human liberation is intimately connected to the liberation of all of creation. In particular, the exodus story can teach us many lessons about environmental justice. I’m going to explore five of them here: do not manipulate nature, use water wisely, form a connection to the land, imagine G-d differently and treat humans, animals and the land well.
LESSON ONE: DO NOT MANIPULATE NATURE
The long narrative about the ten plagues not only shows the horror and destruction which human misuse of nature can bring, it also shows us just how important balance is. While the parting of the Re(e)d Sea allows the Israelites freedom, it also destroys the Egyptians and their horses. Our celebrations need to be mindful of the ways in which our liberation was achieved through manipulating nature so that it killed others.
TWO: USE WATER WISELY
Moses’ mother placed him in a reed basket and floated him down a river so that he wouldn’t be killed. She knew that women used that river to bathe and one of them would find the baby and raise him as her own. She used water wisely and in doing so saved her baby’s life.
Yet, drowning of the Egyptians is still happening today when water is polluted with pesticides, privatized, overused and a daily struggle for many people today. While water may have helped us gain our freedom, it came at a high price. It still does.
FORM A CONNECTION TO THE LAND
Wandering in the desert for 40 years and the constant complaining of the Israelites about the lack of food and water has a number of lessons to teach us. First, it is highly probable that coming from the Egyptian society in which they could have been quite disconnected with nature, they had no idea what was edible in the desert and no clue how to find drinkable water. G-d is merciful and provides the Israelites with food that they recognize (quails and manna) and easily obtainable sources of water. If there really was no food in the desert, this is also a good illustration of the ways in which humans need nature to survive and they need certain things from the natural world. Forming a connection to the land doesn’t come through its severe modification so that it is habitable for humans, it is a process that takes generations of knowledge concerning how to live off the land.
IMAGINE G-D DIFFERENTLY
The Shekinah in the form of pillars of cloud by day and fire by night provide us with a different understanding of G-d’s presence in the natural world. G-d guides the Israelites in their wanderings showing them where to camp and when to leave. They are not alone in what for them is a foreign and quite terrifying place. It is also an image of an immanent, caring G-d working through creation and not wholly separate from it. It is an image of G-d that I find comforting and often think of when I see fog hanging low in the air or wrapped around a mountain peak.
TREAT HUMANS, ANIMALS AND THE LAND WELL
Finally, we have the gift of the Promised Land to the Israelites whose conquest is a lesson in and of itself on how not to treat human beings. This Promised Land is not given as property. The Israelites can live there as long as they hold up their end of the covenant with G-d. This includes rules about the farming of the land including sabbatical resting of the land, not harvesting the corners of fields so that the poor may eat, not taking all the fruit from the vines and trees so others may have some and giving an additional portion of the harvest to the poor every three years. Working animals must have Shabbat rest, be treated fairly, not be beaten and be worked at their own pace so as not to cause injury. If one wants to eat the meat of animals, their slaughter must be done in a humane way. The land is said to be flowing with milk and honey, an abundance that humans must help maintain by following the covenant they have chosen. Failure to abide by these rules will lead to exile from the land.
This is just the tip of the iceberg on how this Jewish story of human liberation is directly connected to the liberation of the entirety of creation. So much more could be said, so many other connections could be made, other images drawn from and so many more lessons to be learned. Alas there is not enough room here.
The most important point is that liberation is not an otherworldly phenomena, but keenly grounded in the here-and-now. It comes through the balanced use of nature, the wise use of water, different imagines for G-d, a strong connection to the land, in just relationships with each other, animals and that place and so much more. The reward is a good life in a land flowing with milk and honey. I can think of nothing better.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D. is a US feminist scholar currently living abroad in Prague in the Czech Republic. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).