Garbage Isle is twice the size of Texas, ways 88,000 tons, consists of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, and is quickly growing (https://weather.com/news/news/2018-03-23-great-pacific-garbage-patch-twice-size-of-texas). Estimates suggest that between 20 and 30 million individuals, largely comprised of women and children, are currently enslaved, with that number growing by 200,000 each and every year. These represent two different problems, each one so large it sometimes seems that the only depressing possible responses include amnesia, denial, or resignation. And they are also supersized canaries of a sort, entered into evidence of some kind of rot, at too widespread a level, of a fundamental failure of relationship to other human beings and to the stunning planet where we are blessed to reside.
As a pulpit Rabbi, I look forward to this pre-Passover time of year. To date this year, 87 questions have come across my computer, phone, and desk, relating to the observance of kashrut on Passover. I relish the opportunity primarily for two reasons. (1) They represent excuses to connect with people. So many times, I have learned of family conflict, of new accomplishments, of dreams and projects, of profound anxieties. The opportunity to provide a kind, listening ear, and to connect on a human level with the people in the community I'm supposed to help steer is essential. It shapes my understanding of where people are at, and serves as a conscious compass for the communal paths I plan to suggest in sermons, programs, speakers, and initiatives; and (2) It's often an opportunity to make peoples' lives easier in a tangible way. Surrounding Passover, practice is quite strict, you see, and people rarely know why they're doing what they're doing. There's a balanced place, I'm sure, for stringency in religious ritual practice, but often, the simple statement of (often) non-controversial Jewish law permits that which was unknown. Usually, there's a substantial cost savings involved. "No, you don't need to get the Kosher for Passover certified butter at twice the price if the only ingredients are cream and salt." "Yes, if you're doctor told you you must take this medicine, you should take it on Passover without guilt or concern." "Yes, plastic may be kashered according to the vast majority of legal decisors, and it is okay." Etc. And I'll be honest, there's more than a little rabbinic fun in being able to make life easier, help folks save money, and use the Jewish law knowledge gained through study in real-life situations.
But during periods of introspection, I'm noticing that I'm feeling quite unsatisfied and a little disingenuous in my responses. At first, I couldn't quite place the source of the discomfort. Perhaps, I thought, it's just a healthy sense of caution at being liked or praised for issuing common-sense rulings that are becoming (thankfully) more common, especially among pulpit clergy who see the anxiety, the stress, the increasing burdens of the people. No. That was part of it, but not the whole of it, and not the main part.
I'm getting the sense that it's not nearly enough to say that Passover is too painful; proclamations that the kezayit (the olives volume required as a minimum for legal eating in Jewish law) is the size of an olive and not a football are insufficient. Normalcy, leniency, sanity - call it what you will. And it's so needed. But it doesn't do much to stoke or satisfy the burning desires of the human soul. Stringency, for its party, feeds and fulfills a framework of piety and sacrifice, and (with real detriment), leaves people feeling transformed, elevated, closer to God. Leniency is usually better policy these days given the pendulum's current apex, but it doesn't lend itself to passion.
Here's my suggestion for our communities. For those who truly struggling financially (and there are many), than the use of an increasing number of guides and guidelines by Rabbis trying to free us from the abusive power practice that is price-gauging are engaging a tremendous service. But for those of us who can stretch to spend a little more, let's shop with our hearts first, led by values, giving in to and fostering religious passion. How? By freeing ourselves from the slavery of a consumerism run amok, blind to the consequences of our collective purchasing power.
Plastics. They are literally destroying our ecosystem, drowning the seas, ubiquitous in the stomachs of sea-faring fowl, and now shown to have permeated the deepest bottoms of the oceans. Bring your own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. If you're not in the habit yet, start with Pesach. Don't use plastic products this Pesach. Just don't do it. Use a biodegradable option, or frame the sacrifice of washing dishes as religiously necessary. It's part of a realignment with God's creation. We're supposed to guard and work it - we forgot, in our consumerism, about the guarding part. Connection to a deity isn't supposed to be vain, and the opposite of vanity is meaning. To me, the basic meaning of the one God thing, be it of the Maimonidean type or the panentheistic chasidism I much prefer, is that we are all ultimately part of one greater reality, governed by a Source deep within and without, shared, and implicitly demanding such great responsibility to each other and all other things. Holistic, together-living.
Take tuna. Just this year, thirteen (13) people have asked me whether they have to pay quadruple for Kosher for Passover tuna fish that, they bemoan, tastes strangely worse than all other tuna they've ever eaten, for inexplicable reasons. To that, it's well within normative halacha to state that if the ingredients are merely tuna, salt, and water, that it's Kosher for Passover, with or without special Passover certification. But what about the fact that large commercial fisheries are one of the largest single source of plastic contamination in the oceans, according to analyses of the plastics found in Garbage Isle. And so the imperative is to free ourselves from the apathy of knowing our purchases don't make a difference, to remove the veil of ignorance that says it's just fine to consume anything in the store, and walk away with another plastic bag. This year, spend the extra money, but not on unnecessarily certified tuna, but rather on pole-caught tuna from a fishery that values sustainability and prioritizes together-living over profit.
Chocolate. A broad analysis of the issues is beyond the scope. But the issues of child slavery in the chocolate industry are famous and well-documented with simple google searches. Low bids, largely from American chocolate producers, have resulted in Ivory Coast slavery rings. In order to meet the demand at the prices being put out, local chocolate owners hire bands to enslave children for free labor. Or conditions that are close to it. See here (http://fortune.com/big-chocolate-child-labor/) or here (http://www.foodispower.org/slavery-chocolate/) or here (http://www.slavefreechocolate.org/). The problem is ubiquitous, and horrifying. Will we really eat Passover dessert produced by slaves, so that it's cheaper? Instead of merely permitting Kosher for Passover chocolate that doesn't bear certification (by ascertaining that it's produced in a totally gluten free facility and getting the approval of the lenient decisor crowd), let's spend more this Passover, at the very least, and get fair-trade certified chocolate. Equal Exchange has pioneered the fair trade movement. Yet folks spend their time raising issues about whether the certifying Rabbi is of a certain denomination. No doubt, we all know it's Kosher for Passover. And we know that if there if the God of the prophets lives and sustains, and redeemed Israel, He cares a hell of a lot more about our noticing the plight of slaves than our ideological disputes. Have no fear, Fox's Ubet has a fair-trade certified line with a green label (rather than the classic yellow one), and is at Whole Foods and other stores. This year, together-living rather than artificially cheap chocolate. Next year in Jerusalem.
Coffee. The issues aren't as bad as chocolate, but they're close. Abusive labor practices have been well documented. But there are a variety of source direct, fair trade certified, etc. brands. Do we really wanted to be caffeinated by crimes against humanity? Or to ignore it and plead the fifth? On Passover, when we remember that we were slaves, and are now free to make choices and be empowered to serve and praise the Lord of all the people and all the universes in the vast-multiverse?
Produce. Yes, the organic craze may or may not affect your health in negative ways (likely it does). But pumping toxic pesticides into a burdened ecosystem has dramatic effects on other living things, and on the sustainability of life on our planet. Yes, we are supposed to care about the birds, fish, insects, and plants. If we don't care about other living things at all, then our religious sensibility is way off. And I'm not going to get started about factory-farming, be it fowl, beef, dairy, or eggs. If we don't take notice of the perils of this moment, our sense of walking with God in this moment is absent.
These are examples, and yes, ein ladavar sof, there is no end. But all beginnings are difficult, and we aren't free to exempt ourselves from trying just because the task is vast. As Adrienne Marie Brown wrote in Emergent Strategy, "what we pay attention to grows. so i pay attention to the places we as a species are learning, changing, getting free, experiencing pleasure and joy." The Chasidim often note that our attention, our very awareness, is in exile, and redeemed on Passover. A large part of slavery is about not even perceiving that there's no hope, an implicit rote day by day living devoid of dreams, purpose, and so painfully numb. Rav Soloveitchik zt''l , as recorded in Festival of Freedom, said it well. "Economic justice and equity are a precondition of physiological cleanliness. Only the bread won through toil and hard work that justly belongs to a person may be offered to God. However, if the means used in the process of acquiring the goods are unfair, then the bread is unfit for sacrificial offering to God." Dare I say that we are slaves to our enslavement of others and our disregard of together-living. Passover without the pain, yes, sure - that's convenient. But to a Passover with Purpose - halleluyah!