Slaves to Materialism

Readings for the seder table.

As part of Operation Noah, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) has developed the following materials for Passover to help you explore the ways in which overconsumption and materialism “enslave” us as individuals and as a society and threaten the survival of other species and our planet. Excerpted with permission from COEJL.

Spiritual Preparation for Passover

Passover is rich with teachings we can use to live more sustainably and happily on earth. One of the names for Passover is Z’man Chay-Ru-Tay-Nu, the time of our freedom. As we go through this holiday, let’s think about the degree to which we are enslaved by our addiction to material things. Let’s think about what it costs us as individuals, families, and communities to pursue the consumptive lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. Let’s think about what our real material needs are and how they might be satisfied at less cost to each other and to the rest of life on the planet.

passover seder readings on materialismLet’s think about who our Pharaohs are–the forces in our society and within each of us that make us want more and more. Let’s think about who our Moseses are–who, within us and around us, can help us break out of patterns of over consumption and materialism? Let’s think about the other ways in which Judaism in general and Passover in particular can help us lead happier, more fulfilling, and less consumptive lives.

Who is rich? Those who are content with their portion.

Pirke Avot

No matter what their income, a depressing number of Americans believe that if they only had twice as much, they would inherit the estate of happiness promised them in the Declaration of Independence. The man who receives $15,000 a year is sure that he could relieve his sorrow if he had only $30,000 a year: the man with $1 million a year knows that all would be well if he had $2 million a year…Nobody has enough.
-Lewis Lapham, Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion, 1988

How does our consumption lead to the endangerment of other species? There are three major ways.

We physically alter or destroy the ecosystems in which many species live when we log virgin forests for wood and paper products; when we build sprawling cities that destroy wetlands; when we turn vast areas of land into agro-industrial zones.

We pollute habitats, putting toxic materials and excessive levels of nutrients into species’ homes when we release toxic industrial byproducts into rivers, lakes, and oceans; when pesticides leach into water; when we release sulfur into the air which falls as acid rain on forests; when mining and processing of metals pollutes watersheds; when poorly managed land erodes into streams.

We contribute to changes in the world’s atmosphere and climate in ways that cause harm to many species when we burn fossil fuels; when we destroy forests; when we release ozone-destroying chemicals into the atmosphere.

On the day before Passover, it is a custom to search throughout one’s home for any trace of chametz–leavening. One way of looking at chametz/leaven is as the ways in which your life is “bloated” in a material sense–the stuff and activities that are superfluous to and distracting from the fulfillment of your deepest dreams and goals.

Identifying your “Chametz”

Look around your house for the “stuff” that isn’t really important to you. Identify the “stuff” that encumbers more than it liberates. Roughly calculate the hours of your life-energy you devoted to earning enough to acquire this “stuff.” Examine how you spend your time and identify the activities that are “chametzdik,” unnecessary expenditures of your time and life-energy spent in pursuit of things that are irrelevant or distracting to the life purposes you identified above. What would living a “chametz-free” life for a week be like?

Identifying your “Matzah”

Matzah is called “simple bread” or “poor man’s bread.” One way of looking at matzah is as those simple activities and things that truly nourish you and help you accomplish your deepest dreams. What matzah can you identify in your life? What are the physical items in your household that really do nourish you and assist you in the fulfillment of your dreams? What are the “matzahdik” activities in your life, those activities that bring your closer to the fulfillment of your life’s purposes?

Identifying your Mitzrayims

What Mitzrayims, what “straits and limitations,” can you identify in your own life? To what are you enslaved? In what areas of your life are you in need of liberation?

Making a Personal Exodus

In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally left Egypt.

The Haggadah

How might you use this information is preparing for and carrying out your own “Exodus,” your own journey of liberation this Passover? What “chametz” would you like to eliminate and what “matzah” would you like to “ingest” more of during the week of Passover in order to help you break free from some of your “Mitzrayims”?

Making a Communal Exodus

The original Exodus was much more than a collection of personal liberations. It was a collective liberation, a liberation of an entire people. How can we engage our society in an Exodus from materialism and over-consumption? How do we begin the journey towards the Promised Land, a land rich in community, rich in opportunities for the development of our human potential, and rich in relationships with each other and the rest of the planet?

Their land is full of silver and gold, there is no limit to their treasure. Their land is full of horses, there is not limit to their chariots. And so their land is full of idols: they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have wrought.
Isaiah 2:7-9

The upper classes in any society are more satisfied with their lives than the lower classes are, but they are no more satisfied than the upper classes of much poorer societies–nor than the upper classes were in the less affluent past. Consumption is thus a treadmill, with everyone judging their status by who is ahead and who is behind.
-Michael Argyle, The Psychology of Happiness

Readings for the Seder Table

The following readings are designed for use during the seder to supplement the Haggadah that you are using. Each of the readings corresponds to a traditional part of the seder.


The Torah (Deuteronomy 16:3) calls matzah “lechem oni”, which is commonly translated as “bread of affliction”, but means, more literally, “poor person’s bread” or “peasant bread.” For our ancestors, bread was the staff of life, symbolic of all food. One name for Passover is “The Festival of Matzah,” but it might also be called “The Festival of Simple Food.” Part of the great genius of this holiday is the way in which the simple peasant food of our slave past was transformed into the food of our redemption. How might matzah as simple food redeem us now?

One way is our own personal health. Many of the serious diseases in our society have now been linked to over consumption of animal foods and processed foods of all sorts. In the past decade, medical authorities have begun to recommend less animal food and more whole grains and fresh vegetables.

A second way is by sharing food with the hungry. What do matzah/simple food and hunger have to do with one another? If we all ate more simply, there would be more for others. This is an important lesson for the modern world and especially for us in America. More than 70% of the grain grown in the US goes to feed livestock. The livestock flesh, in turn, will feed far fewer people than the feed that went into it. If all the grain grown for livestock were consumed directly by people, it would feed five times as many people as it does when fed to animals.

A third way is that eating simple, fresh food grown by local farmers who practice sustainable farming methods reduces pollution for fertilizers and pesticides which threaten the health of humans, other species, and whole ecosystems.

Is this not the fast that I have chosen? To loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bonds of oppression, and to let the oppressed go free…Is it not to share thy bread with the hungry?
-Isaiah 58:6-7

This is the lechem oni, simple bread, that our ancestors ate when they were slaves in Mitzrayim. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need celebrate Pesach with us. This year, we are still alienated from the land and its living communities. Next year may we be more connected to our people’s homeland, Israel, and to the natural world that is homeland to us all. This year, we are still slaves, tied to materialistic and destructive consumption patterns. Next year, may we and all the peoples of the earth be redeemed by having enough to satisfy our needs without consuming beyond what the earth can sustain.


One of Passover’s lessons is learned to distinguish between more and enough. Dayenu means “it would have been enough for us.” Often, enjoying more wealth and comfort stimulates our desire for more–more attention, more comforts, more money, more, more, more. Passover and the Haggadah teach us to be mindful of what our real needs are, of what constitutes “enough.”

What constitutes enough for you? What material objects or consumptive activities could you do without?

Make up your own verses to the Dayenu tune, stating what would be enough and what can be done without.

For example:

If we had enough clothes for comfort
and we didn’t have such full closets–Dayenu

If we ate meat only on special occasions
and we ate vegetarian most of the time–Dayenu

If we biked or walked to our daily destinations
and we didn’t own private automobiles–Dayenu

If we purchased from bulk containers
and we didn’t have disposable packaging–Dayenu

If our stuff was built to last
and we rarely threw anything away–Dayenu

And your own verses…

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