Dominik Döhler

What Passover teaches us about the environmental crisis

April 15, 2019

In times of global warming, hurricanes, floods, and droughts, the Plagues of Egypt remind us of what happens when people ignore the signs of an environmental catastrophe

From a historical and religious perspective, Passover may be the most sacred holiday of the Jewish calendar. The deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian enslavement and their ensuing journey through the desert back to their homeland marks a pivotal turning point in biblical history.

Aside from the biblical significance of the holiday, Passover, like many other Jewish holidays conveys a relevant ecological lesson, which might apply today more than ever.

Prior to the Israelite’s escape from Egypt, God brought about a series of pests and natural disasters upon the land, bringing Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from his imprisonment. Each time Pharaoh refused to listen to God and kept adhering to his own reckless way of life, another plague would be sent down to afflict the Egyptian Empire and its people.

While there is a clear moral doctrine behind this sequence of events, the narrative of The Ten Plagues also contains a crucial environmental component which is a shockingly accurate reflection of what is happening in the world today.

Listen to the frogs

The first plague the Egyptian people found themselves grappling with, was that the water of the Nile had turned into blood. As the primary source of water for agriculture, the Nile is what made the emergence of ancient Egyptian civilizations in the desert first possible.

An ecological reading of the plagues brings us to today when human-induced contamination of rivers, lakes, and groundwater contributes to the deterioration of vital ecosystems, loss of habitat and biodiversity. Moreover, it facilitates water scarcity and presents a serious threat to human health.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, emphasizes not only the importance of the ecological reading of The Ten Plagues but also the order in which the plagues occurred. “It is not a coincidence that the first part of the Egyptian ecosystem that God strikes is the water. It is essentially the ultimate form of water pollution. It does not only become undrinkable for humans but also impacts all organisms that live in the water. The second plague is the plague of the frogs. These animals are amphibians and live both in water and on land, but primarily in or in the proximity of water. There is a connection between these two. The water of the Nile goes out of balance; therefore, the frogs go out of balance. They flee the water, move onto land and become a pest to the Egyptian society”, Neril says.

According to Neril, frogs play an essential role in the assessment of the health of an ecosystem. As indicator species, frogs are among the first animals to be impacted by any environmental changes in their habitat. Worldwide, a large number of amphibians (frogs and toads in particular) are threatened with extinction due to climate change mainly on account of their narrow tolerance to changing living conditions, temperature and diet.

“What we see at the moment, is very similar to what happened in the Bible. We are experiencing climate change already, but we haven’t really felt it yet. This also holds true for the first plagues and the Egyptian society. The plague of the water was a nuisance, but it went away. The plague of the frogs was a nuisance, which got into their houses, but it went away. If they had listened to Moses and learned from God’s signs, they wouldn’t have had to suffer the rest of the plagues. The frog was an indicator,” Neril adds.

All hail breaks loose

Indeed, the remaining plagues did not only become more severe in terms of magnitude, but they encroached more and more on the Egyptian society and their lifestyle. The third plague, the plague of lice, already moved into a realm that had a direct effect on the people’s health, albeit, a rather inconsequential effect. Each of the following plagues brought more damage and devastation upon the human population of Egypt, all of which may be put in the contemporary context of man-made effects on the environment — ranging from wild animals running rampant to pestilences befalling man and beast to hail storms and locusts ravaging the country, leaving a swath of destruction in their wake. The longer the Pharaoh refused to conform to God’s will the more disastrous the consequences became.

In an environmental Torah commentary Neril addresses the correlation of the seventh and the eighths plague, hail and locusts. In this context, Neril writes that the preceding hail might have triggered a locust outbreak. After periods of rain, the numbers of locusts naturally increase. In the ecological reading of The Ten Plagues, this process was facilitated by the melting of the hail.

Subsequently, the insects accumulated in the remaining patches of vegetation that had not been destroyed by the hail during the previous plague. Normally, solitary creatures, the locusts were now in close contact with their fellow species which led to the release of serotonin in their brains induced by a chemical reaction in their feces. As a result, the locusts turned into gregarious creatures swarming the land, wreaking havoc on crops and nature.

The formation of swarms of locusts is subject to studies by scientists around the world, who, indeed, have established a link between the serotonin levels in the nervous system of the locust and its propensity to swarming behavior.

Enslaved to fossil fuels

Further, Neril mentions the necromancers who were the wise men of ancient Egypt, and who may be considered the equivalent of today’s scientists. According to Neril, the necromancers pled with Pharaoh to listen to the signs and let the Jewish people go; otherwise, the repercussions will be catastrophic. The intransigence of governments and sluggish political decision-making when it comes to climate change, nowadays, is another element that ties in perfectly with the ecological reading of The Ten Plagues.

“In 1896, the Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius came up with the theory of climate change for which he won the Noble prize. This is already a hundred twenty years ago. In 1965, climate scientists warned United States President Lyndon Johnson about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon pollution. So human society has known about this problem for at least 50 years,” Neril says.

“There is a deep linkage between the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites and how humanity today is in a way enslaved to fossil fuels and consumer society. As much as the scientists warn us that we need to change, every year our unsustainable lifestyle strengthens its tentacles on us”, Neril adds.

Lastly, there is the tenth plague, which is the death of all firstborn children of the Egyptian society. In a chronological sense concerning climate change, the final plague could be interpreted as the end of humanity or human civilization as we know it. However, Neril believes that this is the line that separates the ecological reading of Passover from today’s reality.

“We have to keep in mind that the comparison of The Ten Plagues and climate change only goes so far. In Egypt, it was the death of the firstborn, which is terrible enough, but the society eventually recovered from Pharaoh’s wrongdoings. In terms of climate change, we have no second chance,” Neril stresses.

“I believe we still have time to turn things around. But the time is running out. It is like an hourglass. We cannot continue with business as usual. We need to react now and react appropriately. Otherwise, we are putting our lives, the lives of our children, the lives of our grandchildren and the lives of 15 million species on the planet in great danger,” Neril concludes.

This ZAVIT article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 04/15/2019.