Five Vegan Teachings for Seder Night
April 10th, 2022
By Rabbi Akiva Gersh
In many ways, Pesach is the quintessential Jewish holiday for at the very foundation of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people is the fact that, thousands of years ago, we were slaves in Egypt and were subsequently freed from that slavery as a result of God’s benevolent intervention.
Shortly after the exodus the Israelites stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah, in which it is written dozens of times, “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt”, hardwiring into the Jewish heart, mind and soul a knowing and a memory of the experience of having our freedom stripped from us by external forces of oppression.
It’s as if on some level, in order to become the nation we were destined to be, we had to go through that slavery so that we would intimately understand what it means to be oppressed and, therefore, be deeply motivated and inspired to stand up for and fight for the freedom of the oppressed in each generation.
Unfortunately, in every generation since, humans have continued to oppress other humans in all kinds of distressing and disturbing ways. As Jews we are guided by our tradition to try to alleviate that oppression, as much as we can and as best as we can.
But there is a more recent form of oppression found in modern-day society that results from a combination of industrialization, globalism and increased consumerism and involves a horrid system of enslavement and abuse. Humans are still the oppressors in this form of oppression, but the victims are not. The victims are animals. Billions upon billions of them every single year.
Each year, all around the world, animals are forcibly born into the world of factory farming, a world that treats them like automatons with no feelings, whose perceived purpose is to solely be turned into meals for consumers and profit for corporations. As a result, the living conditions afforded these animals are horrendous and cruel and awareness of the sanctity of all life is painfully absent.
That’s why more and more people, including many Jews, are making the conscious choice to desist from eating animals and turning to a diet and a lifestyle that reflects values such as compassion, care and concern for all life, human and animal alike.
There may be no better time in the Jewish cycle of holidays to focus on these values than Pesach, the main holiday that celebrates freedom. For how can we talk about and rejoice in our own freedom while eating foods that come directly from industries that consciously cause pain and suffering to living creatures and destroy any sense of their freedom or dignity?
On a night that we are celebrating our people’s freedom from oppression we should also take time to consider what we can do, in these days at this time, to extend that same kind of freedom to all of God’s creatures.
Within the pages of the Pesach Haggadah we find familiar passages that reflect the very values that drive people towards a vegan lifestyle today. Below are a few of them that you can bring into the discussions around your seder table with your friends and family.
At the very beginning of the seder we recite the words: “Anyone who is famished should come and eat”, openly inviting all who are hungry to come into our homes and partake of the Pesach Seder meal with us.
And even though practically speaking it won’t actually happen that people will start pouring through our door to sit around our tables with us, this proclamation represents our deep desire to share our blessings with others, to make sure that all people have what they need, that no one goes without.
Within this emotional opening piece of the Haggadah we see a reflection of the inalienable right of all people to have access to sufficient amounts of nourishing food.
And yet we live in a world where 25,000 people die a day from hunger, half of them children. That’s over 9 million people every year who die simply because they don’t have proper access to the basic amount of food necessary for survival.
That’s criminal for a world that has figured out a way to feed over 70 billion animals every year in order to turn them into food products for humans. These animals consume disproportionately large amounts of water and grain, grain which is often grown in developing countries who themselves have serious problems with food security. Instead of growing food to be fed to animals who are forcibly born into the meat, dairy and egg industries, this food can be fed directly to millions of humans who desperately need it.
So as we open our hearts on Seder night and invite others into our homes to share in our food, let’s extend this concern for others into the entire year through food choices that most directly ensure a future of food security for all. Eating vegan is a crucial part of the solution.
TELLING THE STORY
At the heart of the Pesach seder is the telling of the story of the enslavement of the ancient Israelites and their eventual salvation. And even though almost everyone at every seder table knows this story already, we nonetheless tell it every single year to make sure we never forget our own experiences with oppression so that, as mentioned above, we won’t turn a blind eye to forms of oppression taking place in our world today and will be moved to rise up and act.
At the end of this passage of the Haggadah we recite the line, “Anyone who spends a lot of time telling this story is praiseworthy” because the more this story is told, discussed and analyzed the deeper we internalize the critical life lessons contained within it and allow those lessons to positively change our lives.
So too when it comes to the ongoing suffering of billions of animals in our world today.
They have a story. A story that must be told for them as they cannot share their story themselves. And the more we tell their story and the more we speak up, speak out and expose the horrors and injustices of the meat, dairy and egg industries, the more successful we will be in alleviating the suffering and oppression of other sentient beings and the more positive change we will bring into the world in the realms of human health, animal welfare and environmental health, all praiseworthy goals supported by thousands of years of Jewish laws and values.
SCREAMING OUT LOUD
There’s an amazing teaching from the Hiddushei Ha’Rim, the first rebbe of the Hasidic dynasty of Gur, in which he says that initially the Israelites were so steeped in the experience of exile and enslavement in Egypt that they ceased to realize that their reality wasn’t normal. They got so used to the exile that they forgot that they were in exile.
But then their hearts opened and they started to feel what life could, and should, be like and that caused them to finally feel the pain of what they were going through. From that moment on they could no longer tolerate their reality which led them to scream out loud. And with those screams the process of being redeemed began.
The same, I believe, can be said regarding the treatment of animals in modern industrial food industries. Most people today still choose to ignore the lifelong pain and suffering that animals endure in these industries. As if it’s not even happening. As if it’s not even possible that it’s happening. Or, even worse, as if it’s normal and okay to treat animals with such intense levels of cruelty.
And the animals are screaming out. But because they can’t make their screams be heard beyond the walls of the factory farms, we must scream out for them. We must publicize their pain and their misery so that more and more people understand what’s happening behind the closed doors of the industries that raise, kill and process them for human consumption.
We must tell the world there’s a different way, a better way, a way that will create a more compassionate, peaceful and just world for all living creatures.
We must scream out loud. With love and kindness. But scream nonetheless.
And each time we do, we bring our world one step closer to redemption.
CHANGING THE WORLD THROUGH OUR EATING
Food plays a major role in the cultural expression and religious rituals of the Jewish tradition. Each holiday has its own foods that uniquely represent that holiday’s essence and meaning. Pesach is no exception with its heavy emphasis on eating matzah.
But there’s one important difference when it comes to eating matzah on Seder night:
It’s the only time of the year that our eating is on the level of mitzvah.
What does it mean for eating to be a mitzvah? On the simplest level, it means that the Torah specifically tells us to eat matzah on the first night of Pesach, as it says, “On that evening, you shall eat unleavened bread“ (Exodus 12:18). And, because it’s a mitzvah, we do it.
But on a deeper level, as a mitzvah, eating matzah at the Seder has the ability to connect us to a level beyond our regular everyday reality. That’s the intention of mitzvot in general, to bring us to a deeper level of connection with ourselves, others and God and to a deeper experience of life itself.
Therefore, our eating of the matzah on the first night of Pesach is not like regular eating which we do to ensure our survival or to satisfy our desires for certain tastes. It is more of a spiritual act than a physical one. Taking it one step further, the Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the act of eating, when done with spiritual focus and intention, contributes greatly to tikkun olam, the fixing of the world. Let me say that again: the Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the act of eating, when done with spiritual focus and intention, contributes greatly to tikkun olam, the fixing of the world.
This makes Seder night a perfect time to focus on the power and influence of our eating. In addition to having the extraordinary opportunity, when we eat those first bites of matzah, to rectify those moments from throughout the entire past year when we didn’t eat with that ideal focus and intention, we also have the opportunity to newly commit, or recommit, to eating from now on in a way that directly improves the world.
And what better way to accomplish this than to make sure the foods we choose to eat have not caused pain and suffering to other sentient beings, that they reflect the ancient Jewish values of care, concern and compassion and that they create more health in the world- for us, animals and the environment- instead of sickness and destruction.
CONNECTING TO THE FUTURE
One of the most confusing parts of the seder for many people comes at the very end. After a long uplifting night of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, singing, rejoicing and dining with family and friends, we open up the door to welcome in Elijah the Prophet, the one who, according to Jewish tradition, will herald the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age.
And as we stand in front of the open door, with renewed strength and belief that the world really can become a better place, we say these words: “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that don’t know You and on the kingdoms that don’t call You by name”.
Talk about an intense way to end such a joyous and spiritually elevated night!
How do we make sense of this?
I personally had a very hard time with this part of the seder for many years until I heard a rabbi explain that this is what we’re really saying when we recite these lines:
“God, the world is so filled with darkness, with evil, with people doing bad things. But, you know what? After this evening of tasting the true taste of freedom, I can’t tolerate a world with these things in it anymore. I just can’t. We’re ready for the Messianic Age, a time when peace, compassion and justice will be the way of the world for ALL of Your creation. Please, open up the hearts of all of humanity and help us finally transform the darkness of this world into bright lights for a brighter future and let us welcome the Messiah and the Messianic Age here and now.”
Pesach is not only about remembering a historic moment in the past. It is also about gazing our eyes forward towards the future and hoping and longing and, of course, working towards a different world, a better world, a world in which dignity, respect and freedom are the standards for all living things…including animals.
We know that the original diet given to humanity by God was completely vegan (Genesis 1:29). Commenting on this, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, wrote:
“Is it possible to conceive that a highly valued moral virtue, which had already existed as a part of the human legacy, should be lost forever? It was already established…that the very same permission to eat meat, granted after the Flood, was not intended to be the actual practice for all time, for how is it possible for a lofty and enlightened moral condition, once instituted, to vanish (as though it had never been)? And certainly, when this noble vision is fulfilled…then humanity will no longer be able to in any way brandish its sword over animal life, but they will dwell in safety together, and savor the splendor of life.”
So on Pesach, as we envision the great future and get excited about its arrival (may it be soon in our days), we can rejoice in the fact that the original vision of Eden will one day be restored and humanity will no longer even be able to fathom taking the life of another creature to sustain its own.
Hag Pesach Kasher V’Sameach V’Tivoni!!
(Have a happy, kosher and vegan Pesach!)