Horseradish is hard to find in the hinterlands outside Gallup NM. On this dry bit of Earth, next to what's left of Navajo/Hopi/Zuni lands, Pesach was clearly going to be a new experience. I had taken the year off from Brandeis to join the Global Walk for a Livable World 1990, figuring the truest education would be to "get up and walk the land" (Gen. 13:17), and to "serve and defend it" (Gen. 2:15). We'd started in L.A. two and a half months earlier, and would arrive in New York six months later, "walking our talk" of sustainability.
There were nearly sixty of us crossing the AZ/NM border, when suddenly Passover was upon us. We decided to hold two sedarim -- the first as an all-group program, and the second as a Jewish space. We typed up a "freedom seder" on the office bus that accompanied us; worked with that week's cooks on Pesach-friendly foods; took the outreach van into Gallup to copy the haggadah and scout out the basics (no horseradish, but chiles did the trick); picked up specially-delivered matzah from back east. Amid sand and sagebrush, in an interfaith group devoted to protecting Creation, the story of the Exodus took on new meaning:
"This is the bread of affliction...let all who are hungry come and eat" -- our walk had taken us through some of the poorest urban and rural areas in the country already; we knew that social and environmental sustainability were intertwined.
"This year we are slaves; next year may we be free" -- living out of a backpack, and getting almost everywhere on foot, upper-middle-class folk like me quickly realize how enslaved we are to the external trappings that make up our daily lives. We also realize that this is how most people in most lands and through most of history live.
"Blood; frogs; lice..." -- the longest part of our desert sedarim was recounting the plagues, noting the environmental relevance of the original ten, and coming up with our own lists. We offered ten plagues of sexism and homophobia, ten plagues of economic injustice, ten plagues of human rights abuses. Over our abuse of Earth, ten simply could not suffice.
"On all other nights, every other vegetable; on this night, bitter herbs" -- the group's favorite reading was Reb Zalman's kavannah over the maror: "We are the Egypt, and we are the Pharaohs whose hearts have been hardened and who refuse to let our Mother the Earth heal. We must shout a "Dayenu" to that, and begin to act.... As we are observant of the laws of Peach, so we must become observant about what is helpful to Earth; and like chametz on Pesach, we must avoid what destroys her."
Lessons learned: Tradition gives us not just symbols but also roots, sustaining us in our struggles for justice in the modern world. Seders are at least as good for bridging across cultures and religions, as they are for bonding within our own communities. To understand the Exodus, walk. And near a desert or not, to understand and relive Pesach as the Torah tells us to (Ex. 12:14ff), celebrate it outdoors.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, www.jrf.org/adatsmd
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