Arrested at White House, waving Bitter Herb & Matzah

Arrested at White House, waving Bitter Herb & Matzah

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Yesterday, along with 14 other religious folk, clergy and committed “laity,” I was arrested for standing at the White House with signs and songs, reciting the names of more than one hundred people who had been killed by one result of the climate crisis – Superstorm Sandy.

We were calling on the President to act swiftly to heal our Mother Earth from the climate crisis, from the plagues that modern Pharaohs – Big Oil, Big Coal, Unnatural Gas – have brought upon us.

Among those arrested alongside me were Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, who teaches on social justice at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is a member of The Shalom Center’s Board; Lynne Iser, a member of the Board of Isabella Freedman retreat center; and Freyda Black, a cantor, farmer, and member of P’nai Or Fellowship in Philadelphia.

Earlier, in a circle of 70 people in the midst of Pennsylvania Avenue , we had just completed a religious service. Rabbi David Shneyer had blown the shofar of warning and liberation; we had heard the Muslim call to prayer from the Quran, an invocation of the Four Winds in the spiritual tradition of the First Nations, and a Christian prayer.

Then I spoke about the Bitter Herb and recited the Ten Plagues of our own generation. In a traditional Passover Seder, we would pour wine from our cups ten times in order to express our grief over the ancient Ten Plagues. In the same vein, I invited the gathered community to call out “Sorrow” ten times as we absorbed the grief brought on by the modern plagues. 

We shared some matzah that I passed around the circle —the Bread of Affliction that on the night of Exodus became the Bread of Freedom because it was baked in haste and urgency. Just so, I said must we move with what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of Now,” to heal our planet before its wounds overcome us.

After the Matzah, Rose Berger of Sojourners magazine shared Palm branches around the circle and with them, the meaning of Palm Sunday – commemorating Jesus’ entry in a protest march into Jerusalem, opposing the violent and deadly Roman Empire just before Passover – the appropriate and risky time of remembering the downfall of Imperial Pharaoh.

Then we shared amongst us a large Globe of Earth, carrying it and singing as we walked to the White House fence, “We have the whole world in our hands –- rivers and mountains in our hands, all our children in our hands, the whole world in our hands.”

As you see on the faces of two of us actually in the prison wagon after our arrests, the arrest itself – paradoxically – felt like a step into freedom, a continuation of, rather than a break from, both our joy in singing and our sorrow at the deaths we had recited. What is the Freedom of Passover? –  Freedom to grieve our wounds, Freedom to celebrate our covenant for action with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Holy One Who is the Interbreathing of all life .

Our action was videotaped, and we hope to be able to share the scene with you early next week. (The Shalom Center will be closed for the first two days of Passover.)

These are the Ten Plagues I recited, and below them, Ten Healings that accompanied the blessing of our Globe.


Undrinkable water poisoned by fracking. (Sorrow!)

Asthma: Lungs suffering from coal dust and gasoline fumes. (Sorrow!)

Suffering and death for fish, birds, vegetation, and human beings from the oil upheaval in the Gulf of Mexico. (Sorrow!)

Smashed mountains and dead coal-miners in the lovely hills of West Virginia. (Sorrow!)

Unheard-of droughts in Africa, setting off hunger, starvation, civil wars and genocide. (Sorrow!)

Drought in Russia, setting off peat-bog fires and scarcity of wheat. (Sorrow!)

Summer-long intense heat wave in Europe, killing thousands of elders. (Sorrow!)

Unheard-of floods in Pakistan, putting one-fifth of the country under water. (Sorrow!)

Superstorm Sandy, killing hundreds in Haiti and America. (Sorrow!)

Years of drought and fires in Australia. (Sorrow!)

Parched corn fields and dead crops in the US corn-belt. (Sorrow!)


Creating organic farms in countrysides and cities. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Wind-based energy: Purchasing home & company electric power from wind-based suppliers. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Hybrid or electric cars. Families buy them; convince cities, government agencies, & businesses to switch their auto fleets. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Use public transportation. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Family & congregational education/ action to heal the Earth: At Bat/Bar Mitzvah time and teen-age baptisms/ confirmations, “turning hearts of children and parents to each other, lest the Earth be utterly destroyed” (Quote from last passage of Malachi, last of the classical Hebrew Prophets). (L’chayyim, To life!)

Vigils, picketing, civil disobedience at sites of mountain destruction by coal companies. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Prevent the Tar Sands Pipeline. (L’chayyim, To life!)

End fracking: Insist on moratoriums or prohibitions. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Divestment by colleges, pension funds, religious communities, etc from investment in fossil-fuel companies, shifting investment to renewable, sustainable energy. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Carbon pricing: Insisting that Members of Congress put prices on carbon-fuel production and pay dividends from the incoming fees to American families. (L’chayyim, To life!)

The Plagues and the Blessings are part of a Healing Seder for the Earth that you can find – with Seven Questions and the symbolic foods and blessings – on our website at