Rabbi Ellen Bernstein said her recently published Haggadah, “The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah,” differs from other themed Haggadot in how it introduces a different interpretation of the Torah. As Bernstein points out in the Haggadah’s commentary, the word “land,” eretz or adamah in Hebrew, also means “earth.” That layered meaning has been the inspiration animating Bernstein’s lifelong journey of exploring Judaism’s ecological roots.
Bernstein’s new Haggadah also dovetails with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. She recently told JewishBoston that in conjunction with her new Haggadah, people can celebrate with what she has branded “Earth Seders.” In this age of COVID-19, these seders will be conducted virtually and held on different nights during Passover.
Bernstein founded the Jewish ecological movement 32 years ago when she began the nonprofit Shomrei Adamah: Keepers of the Earth. The organization closed its doors in 1996, but its core mission lives on in Bernstein’s ongoing work. She said that in the early days of the Jewish environmental movement, she and her fellow activists began identifying the Torah’s ecological roots by “cherry-picking from the Bible and other Jewish texts all the citations that were ecologically potent. But after several years of that, I felt there was a deeper ecological through-line in the whole Torah.”
At the same time, Bernstein delved into the work of the eco-philosopher Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s work is a mainstay of environmental studies, and his essay “The Land Ethic,” according to Bernstein, “gives us ethics for how to relate to each other, how to relate within community, as well as how to relate to God. But it doesn’t give us any ethics for how to relate to the land. He expands the notion of community to include land. For him, land is a living organism; it’s the interchange of earth, water, air, microscopic organisms, plants, animals and us.”
After delving into Leopold’s work, Bernstein looked at the Torah through an ecological lens. One of her initial findings was that the word “land” occurs in the Torah over 2,000 times as eretz or adamah. After closely studying Leopold, she realized something was missing in his work. She wrote a scholarly essay called, “A Response to Aldo Leopold: A Biblical Land Epic,” in which she cites the eco-philosopher for missing the notion that there is a land epic in the Bible. The essay led her publisher Behrman House to ask her to write a “green” Haggadah. Her one criterion was “to write an ecological Haggadah only if it rose out of the text itself.”
From that singular goal arose the challenge of connecting freedom, the main human-centered theme of the Haggadah, to the earth. The answer, it turned out, was in the original text of the Haggadah all along. For most people, said Bernstein, their first connection to the word “land” is territory or real estate. That narrow view of the word is connected to the title of Bernstein’s Haggadah. “I wanted to go beyond our understanding of the word ‘land,’” she said. “Even the title of the Haggadah, ‘The Promise of the Land,’ could be subtle for people. They may not realize I’m talking about what [the concept] of land promises. A lot of people initially think, ‘This is about Israel.’ It’s really about all the gifts of life that land offers us.”
Bernstein further noted in her book’s author’s note that when the instructions for the current seder were written down, the rabbis stipulated that we were to read one biblical passage. In its entirety, that passage summarized the story of the Exodus.
The passage begins with: “My father was a wandering Aramean.” From there, the verses convey the Israelites’ time in Egypt, their eventual enslavement and God leading them out of Egypt with “signs and wonders.” The next two verses from Deuteronomy were subsequently dropped from the text: “And God gave us a land. And now we bring the first fruits of the land, which You, God, have given to us.”
Bernstein said that land was clearly connected to freedom and our most precious bounty was reserved for God. She writes, “In returning the fruits to God, we were participating in the eternal round of giving and receiving.”
Bernstein further explained that these dropped verses “transmitted a deep ecological message. This Haggadah retrieves these two verses, re-establishing them at the heart of the seder, restoring the environmental significance of Judaism’s central story.”
Bernstein wants people who encounter “The Promise of the Land” to “come away with the understanding that our tradition has a profound respect for the whole natural world. We need to live in a reciprocal relationship with the land and earth and be respectful and caring. This is what it means to be Jewish. We have a relationship of consciousness and caring around the earth and the natural world. It is an essential part of our Jewish identity. This is an entire part of our tradition that exists. But it’s been hidden or understated and not taken seriously.”