From a historical and religious point of view, Passover is perhaps the most sacred holiday in the Jewish calendar. The deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery and their subsequent journey through the desert to return to their homeland marks a watershed moment in biblical history.
Besides the biblical significance of the holiday, Passover, like many other Jewish holidays, conveys a relevant ecological lesson, which could apply today more than ever.
Before the Israelites escaped from Egypt, God brought a series of pests and natural disasters upon the land, imploring Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from their imprisonment. Each time Pharaoh refused to listen to God and continued to adhere to his own reckless way of life, another plague was sent to afflict the Egyptian Empire and its people.
While there is a clear moral doctrine behind this sequence of events, The Ten Plagues narrative also contains a crucial environmental component that is a surprisingly 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 to blood. As the main source of water for agriculture, the Nile is what made possible the emergence of ancient Egyptian civilizations in the desert.
An ecological reading of plagues brings us to the present day where 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 poses a serious threat to human health.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, highlights not only the importance of the ecological reading of the Ten Plagues, but also the order in which the plagues occurred.
“It’s no coincidence that the first part of the Egyptian ecosystem that God hits is water,” says Neril. “It’s basically the ultimate form of water pollution. Not only does it become undrinkable to humans, but it also impacts all organisms that live in the water. The second plague is the plague of frogs. These animals are amphibians and live both in water and on land, but mostly in or near water. There is a connection between these two. The water of the Nile becomes unbalanced; therefore, the frogs become unbalanced. They flee water, move landward and become a pest of Egyptian society.
According to Neril, frogs play a vital role in assessing the health of an ecosystem. As an indicator species, frogs are among the first animals to be impacted by any environmental change in their habitat. Worldwide, a large number of amphibians (especially frogs and toads) are threatened with extinction due to climate change mainly due to their low tolerance to changes in living conditions, temperature and diet.
“What we are seeing right now is very similar to what happened in the Bible. We are already experiencing climate change, but we haven’t really felt it yet. This also applies to the first plagues and Egyptian society. The water blight was a nuisance, but it’s gone. The plague of frogs was a nuisance, entering their homes, but it went away. If they had listened to Moses and learned signs from God, they would not have had to suffer the rest of the plagues. The frog was an indicator,” adds Neril.
All the hail is raging
Indeed, the remaining plagues not only grew more severe in scale, but increasingly encroached on Egyptian society and their way of life. The third scourge, the lice scourge, has already moved into a realm that has had a direct, albeit rather inconsequential, effect on people’s health. Each of the following plagues have wreaked greater havoc and devastation on the human population of Egypt, all of which can be placed in the contemporary context of human effects on the environment – ranging from rampant wild animals to stricken pestilences. man and beast hail storms and locusts ravage the land, leaving a swath of destruction in their wake. The longer Pharaoh refused to comply with God’s will, the more disastrous the consequences became.
In an environmental commentary on the Torah, Neril discusses the correlation between the seventh and eighth plagues, hail, and locusts. In this context, Neril writes that the previous hail could have triggered a locust invasion. After periods of rain, the number of locusts naturally increases. In the ecological reading of the Ten Plagues, this process was facilitated by the melting hail.
Subsequently, the insects accumulated in the remaining patches of vegetation that had not been destroyed by hail during the previous invasion. Normally solitary creatures, the locusts were now in close contact with their conspecifics, resulting in the release of serotonin in their brains induced by a chemical reaction in their feces. As a result, the locusts turned into gregarious creatures invading the land, wreaking havoc on crops and nature.
The formation of locust swarms is the subject of studies by scientists around the world, who, in fact, have established a link between the levels of serotonin in the nervous system of the locust and its propensity to swarm.
Slave to fossil fuels
Additionally, Neril mentions the necromancers who were the sages of ancient Egypt and who can be considered the equivalent of today’s scientists. According to Neril, the necromancers pleaded with Pharaoh to listen to the signs and let the Jewish people go; otherwise, the repercussions will be catastrophic. The intransigence of governments and the slowness of political decisions in the face of climate change, today, is another element that perfectly matches the ecological reading of the Ten Plagues.
“In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius proposed the theory of climate change for which he won the Nobel Prize. It was already 120 years ago. In 1965, climatologists warned US 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,” says Neril.
“There is a deep connection between the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites and how humanity today is somehow enslaved to fossil fuels and consumer society. As much as scientists warn us that we need to change, each year our unsustainable way of life strengthens its tentacles on us,” adds Neril.
Finally, there is the 10th plague, which is the death of all the firstborn in Egyptian society. In a chronological sense regarding climate change, the final plague could be interpreted as the end of humanity or human civilization as we know it. However, Neril thinks this is the line that separates the ecological reading of Passover from today’s reality.
“We must bear in mind that the comparison between The Ten Plagues and climate change goes no further. In Egypt, it was the death of the firstborn, which is quite terrible, but society eventually recovered from Pharaoh’s misdeeds. In terms of climate change, we don’t have a second chance,” Neril points out.
“I believe we still have time to change things. But time is running out. It’s like an hourglass. We cannot carry on as if nothing had happened. We must react now and react appropriately. Otherwise, we put 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,” concludes Neril.
Watch a video about Passover and climate change here:
Dominik Döhler is editor and writer for ZAVIT – Science and Environment in Israel