Passovers of long ago, reflected in this year’s celebration
We all know the story of Passover. Like most stories in the Old and New testaments, the Passover story is replete with lessons that are applicable to everyday life, even thousands of years later. We can debate the historical accuracy of any biblical event, but we usually agree on the metaphorical significance.
Often there is a lesson to be learned, and the lessons of ancient times manage to remain relevant for today’s modern world. And so it is with the story of Passover.
When I was a little girl, we would gather around the Passover table and read the age-old story from the Haggadah as our ancestors had done for generations. I never tired of hearing the story, singing the songs, and following the special traditions, like opening the door for Elijah and hunting for the afikomen.
But one of my favorite parts was dipping my finger in the red wine and creating a dab on my white saucer each time one of the 10 plagues that visited the Egyptians was named: water turning to blood — dip; frogs — dip; lice — dip; flies — dip; boils — dip; hail — dip; locusts — dip; darkness; all the way up until the ultimate dip; the plague that got the Pharaoh’s attention: the angel of death and the slaying of the first born.
As a young girl trying to make sense of the contradictions in the concept of a loving God who is merciful but jealous, who gives life but slays children — I played some mental gymnastics to come to terms with the dichotomy and understand God’s point of view without accusing him of being hypocritical.
Here He was trying as hard as he could to reach Pharaoh. He (yes I believed at the time that God was a “He,” and we’ll go with that for the purpose of this writing) loved all his children, no matter the nationality, Egyptian or Hebrew, but he especially loved the Israelites because they worshiped Him instead of idols and gold, like Pharaoh and his followers did. (God knew he wasn’t supposed to play favorites, but since the Egyptians didn’t even believe in Him, he figured no harm no foul.)
It pained Him greatly to see his favorite children enslaved, forced to build giant pyramids for pharaoh. Such suffering inflicted all so that Pharaoh could boast to the world that he had the biggest, grandest, structures around. Pharaoh was said to have a golden staircase which he descended when he made his first announcement about taking over the throne for his father. God was upset with Pharaoh for his cruelty, his hubris, his crass attitude, and especially for his shameful value system.
But like a good parent, God tried gently at first to teach Pharaoh to change his ways. And when one punishment for misbehavior didn’t work, God was forced to try another. Sooner or later, God reasoned, Pharaoh would wake up for the good of everyone involved, and change his greedy royal ways. Sooner or later he would stop the madness.
Stop business as usual. Stop the slave markets, stop the massive construction campaigns; and let the Israelites go. Set them free to pursue a life not wrapped up in building bigger and grander structures. Surely God did not want to impose a horrible plague such as sending his beloved yet creepy angel of death, but it was Pharaoh who made that choice by ignoring all the warning signs that lead up to the impending disaster.
When Pharaoh’s own son was taken, and the sons of other wealthy Egyptians fell ill, the daily life of building pyramids and worshiping gold was forced to come to a grinding halt. Only then did Pharaoh finally get the message to stop.
Flash forward 3,500 years and the story is repeating, right now, right here in our lifetime.
It seems to me that God has been looking down at this beautiful world that He created, full of abundance and creatures of every size, color, and shape. Long ago even before the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, He tried to teach his children a lesson that resulted in Him flooding the world to wash it clean of all the stupid, selfish things that people were doing. But He made it a point to save every single animal He created. Everyone knows this. He commanded Noah (one of those righteous doomsday predictors) to make a giant ark and put his family and two of every single living creature in the ark, (all made it in except the unicorn of course), giving the absolute unquestionable message to all of mankind for eternity that every single animal that God created was important and worthy of life.
Of course, looking back in history, there was more than one occasion when God went out of his way to drive home the message that his children should not be worshiping idols or golden calves, the metaphor for the relentless pursuit of money; but instead should remember their connection to the natural world and God’s handiwork. We all know in Genesis in God’s best selling biography, God declares that He alone “made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And [He] saw that it was good.” God goes on to write (or his divinely inspired helpers go on to write, take you pick): “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.”
What does that mean exactly? We are all connected. We all share the same breath. God wants us to know Him and he instructs us to ask the beasts and birds and the bushes to teach us. We know God not by the size of our pyramid, McMansion, Megachurch, SUV, Hotel or golf course, but by His handiwork, His creations — the beautiful natural world which deserves respect, which is “good”, which has much to teach us, which was saved from great flood and of which we are all a part.
Then came along one of his favorite kids, Jesus. We won’t get into whether Jesus was the official messiah, a socialist, or just a really cool hippie, but Jesus was a rabbi and had a lot to say on behalf of God. Many people all over the world think what Jesus had to say is the absolute truth, and that believing his words verbatim are a must for a ticket into the magic kingdom. But how many of those people really know what Jesus spent most of his time talking about? There is such a thing as a red-letter bible. (I know because my husband is the son of a Baptist minister and he showed it to me.) It has all of Jesus’ quotes in red. I have studied the red-letter bible and cannot find a place where Jesus took a position on many of things his most ardent followers attribute to him espousing: abortion, gay marriage, fighting communism, lower taxes, killing terrorists, or protecting gun rights. Quite the contrary. Almost everything Jesus is quoted as saying in the red-letter bible has to do with kindness, lowering the importance of material wealth, loving your neighbor, caring for the less fortunate, living a simple non-ostentatious life, and finding ways to make peace instead of fighting with each other. To realize we are connected.
Jesus once asked “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” He was asking the people of his day to reexamine their value system. He reminded them that treasures of the heart were worth more than treasures of gold. And in the modern era, his words not only ring true, but are a matter of survival. We have created a society that treasures wealth at the cost of the natural world of which we are a part, in a never-ending pursuit of gold: or call it oil, fossil fuels, stock gains, corporate profits. God has never been happy with this value system, but we have continued to build an entire civilization on it.
Now it should be said that historically not all of God’s children got on board with this mindset. Some continued to live their lives closer to the way God intended, respecting the natural, and placing value upon connection to nature, spirit, family, and their tribe or community. Typically we have called those people savages and considered them less than human. Historically, those people have been systematically and relentlessly conquered or colonized, burned at the stake, stripped of their resources; dominated, murdered, or genocidally wiped out through endless wars, the deliberate spreading of diseases, torture, or enslavement; just as the Israelites were enslaved; forced to toil in the fields to enrich their masters, (as in the US), essentially building the metaphorical equivalent of “pyramids.”
In the modern era, our technology has advanced to the point where we now have the ability to extract the world’s natural resources at a far faster rate than nature can replace them. At the current global average levels of consumption, the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We need almost 5 Earth’s to support our consumption long-term at the current rate. God watches in horror while we cause the extinction of the majority of creatures that he has created, disregarding the important lesson he tried to teach us in the Great Flood; claiming to respect his Word on Sundays (or Friday nights) while skipping over the parts that are contrary to our desires. Just since 1970, we have lost 60% of all species. It is beyond comprehension, and you probably think it isn’t even true. After all, it’s not something you hear in the media every day. ( That type of bad news doesn’t sell. ) The scientists know the truth and have sounded the alarm about our ominous future, (including the risk of pandemics), but you have been told to ignore them. So we destroy and destroy at an unprecedented rate that the human mind can barely fathom. We enslave millions of animals in conditions that are so unspeakably cruel that we make it a crime to film those conditions, in order to ensure that you will never see what you are abetting. We encroach daily on wild habitats in order to hunt, build, mine, and extract, coming into contact with species that we should have little contact with, who carry diseases we are not evolved to fight. We set fire to the lungs of the planet. We foul the air with noxious visible and invisible gasses. We pollute the waters of the earth so that potable water, which should be abundant, has become a scarce resource. Then we bottle and sell the water we clean in plastic bottles and carry them to our cars in plastic bags, plastic that eventually chokes our sea life and ends up as microparticles in every living being’s body. We spray poisons systematically and indiscriminately without thought in order to kill insects or weeds we don’t like and anything that depends on them for life. We are heating the planet like a convection oven by burning fossil fuels that should be buried in the ground, and putting more carbon in the atmosphere than the earth has seen in hundreds of thousands of years, since before humans even existed. At the current rate there will be no nature left at all for our children. Yet we expect them to live and thrive in such a world? And we tell ourselves, “Don’t look. Here, look at your phone. Go shopping. Go to the movies. Can’t get to the movies? Watch Netflix. Eat your burger and fries. Have another Dorito. Feeling sad? Take this pill. Feeling anxious? Take that pill. And remember, growth is good!” Growth and consumption are how we measure our success. Not by our well-being, not by our physical health, not by our values, not by the safety in our schools, not by the mental health of our children, not by our connection with our neighbors, not by acts of kindness, not by the beauty of our natural surroundings, not by breathing fresh clean air. But by how fast we can consume. Why do we do this? Because we worship the equivalent of the biblical golden calf.
God is not happy that He keeps having to teach his children these lessons. In my lifetime alone he has stepped up his game in his efforts to get through to us. He recently decided He would send hundred-year floods every year or two just to get our attention. That he would create immense droughts; allow his seas to encroach into our city streets. That he would create superstorm size hurricanes and floods that would wipe out entire islands or devastate entire states: Haiti, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, New Jersey, Texas… That he would allow (from our own doing) the great forests of California, the Amazon, the entire continent of Australia to burn. With each disaster he has been trying to get out attention. He has been trying to remind us of the very same message he sent to Pharaoh:
Your value system is wrong. You are worshipping the golden calf. You have become the slaves of your own greed.
Stop the business as usual and set yourselves free.
God shakes his head and says “You are destroying my creations that I painstakingly created. Don’t you remember what I wrote? Don’t you remember who I am? “You shall know the Lord by His creations, the beasts and birds shall teach you; and we are all one breath.”
I have witnessed, from a privileged distance, untold destruction in my lifetime. Loss of biodiversity, species extinction, run-away climate change, fossil fuel extraction at all costs, the oppression and murder of indigenous people who defend their land. And I have seen God trying to get our attention. It is as if with each disaster we have dipped our finger in the wine and dabbed our saucer:
Exxon Valdez — dab
Hurricane Katrina — dab
Gulf oil disaster — dab
Heatwaves in Pakistan — dab
Bomb cyclone in Mississippi – dab
Birds falling from the sky in Wales, in Arkansas, in Australia, in Boston, in Alabama — dab, dab, dab, dab, dab
Hurricane Charley — dab
Hurricane Michael — dab
Hurricane Florence — dab
Hurricane Harvey – dab
Superstorm Sandy — dab
Tsunami at Fukushima — dab
Great Texas floods — dab
Great Carolina floods – dab
Hurricane Maria — dab
Death of the Great Coral Reef — dab
The Arctic Melting — dab
The Antarctic Melting — dab
4,000 species a day extinct -dab, dab, dab, dab, dab…
All the while, business as usual continues unabated.
So God realized he wasn’t really getting through. In February 2020 he decided to try a different approach. He watched as we encroached into what little habitat remains for wild animals, as we sought to spoil the remaining homes of some of his final, surviving creatures. And he let the disease from those wild creatures, whose habitat should have been left undisturbed, jump. As a result, a plague was brought forth that could not go unnoticed.
God found a way to cause the giant machinery of a world-system based upon endless growth and destruction to stop.
God did not want for anyone to suffer and die, any more than he wanted the Egyptian first-born to suffer. But He was at such a loss to find something we would notice.
And so we stopped. For a brief time, the remaining animals got a respite. Skies became blue that had previously been gray from smog and contaminated air. People heard the sounds of birds where previously they had heard only the rumble of engines. People who had spent hours a day in their car or on a subway were able to spend time with their families. Working parents looked into their children’s eyes, sometimes for the first time in ages. God gave everyone a chance to take a breath (literally) and think.
Yet even while the opportunity presented itself to listen to God, the current Pharaoh and his cronies doubled down on their wicked ways. At a time when God wanted us to remember the importance of protecting his creations and redefining our priorities, the current pharaoh removed restrictions on toxic waste and pollution controls and gave the green light to polluting industries to despoil the air and water with abandon as never before. The current Pharaoh used the mesmerizing refrains of “helping the economy” and “protecting workers” for he knew those phrases would lull his people into complacency; yet he allowed golf courses, liquor stores, and gun shops to remain open, belying his motives and further perverting the priorities that God hoped his virus would re-order.
And yet, we have this opportunity. Just as the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt had the opportunity multiple times as the plagues were visited upon his people. Only the final plague got his attention, and like the current Pharaoh, even then, he changed his mind and sought to re-enslave the Israelites he had just set free.
During the first Passover, the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites who painted the blood of the lamb over their door. The current angel of death passes over the doors of many who wear masks and wash their hands frequently. It also tends to go easier on those who tread lighter upon the earth in their lifestyles and habits. And most telling of all, unlike viruses of the past who showed no mercy for the very young, this virus tends to spare the lives of the youngest among us. Perhaps because it knows that they are the least responsible for the tragic trajectory of their future.
These are amazing times we live in. Did the Egyptians and Israelite’s realize at the time that they were living a historical legend that would be told throughout the ages? When my ancestors told the Passover story in its earliest days of recounting, did they grasp the lessons, and did they imagine that humans would so soon forget God’s admonitions?
Humanity stands on the cross-roads as it never has before. The God of ancient times is watching the seven billion of us, waiting, and hoping His children will listen. Will they hear his message? Will they understand his plea? Will they come to know him through his creations? Will they listen to and care for his creatures with whom they share breath? Will they realize that as they annihilate his creation, so they annihilate themselves? Will they cease the worship of endless golden growth? These are questions for which we hold the answers. When this plague passes, if we return to business as usual, if we do not heed this call, one thing is certain. The virus may pass over, but it will not be the last devastation God allows to be visited upon his children. For a good parent never gives up on teaching his children the lessons they must learn if they are to survive.
Susan McMillan is a therapist, writer and environmental activist.