The Talmudic rabbis wisely warned their generation, “If we destroy our world, there will be nobody to repair it after us.” Far more than those who came before us and with all we have learned in the era of globalism, our generation can fully appreciate this message. We’ve witnessed many environmental disasters in our lifetimes and have come to acknowledge the inconvenient truth of global warming. We know that ours is a delicate and fragile planet; that it is vulnerable to ignorant, greedy and destructive human actions. Yet individually and collectively we’re still struggling to incorporate pragmatic and effective habits into our daily lives. The first Earth Day in April 1970 introduced the world to the 3 Rs of caring for the earth; Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Yet in the 40 years that have ensued we’ve witnessed the devastating impact of increased waste and overconsumption. It’s particularly evident in the US where per capita use of the world’s resources is grossly out of proportion.
Echoing the Talmudic sages, preeminent scholar, authority on Jewish mysticism and author of the book Radical Judaism, Rabbi Arthur Green regards our need to embrace a sacred relationship with the earth as THE critical spiritual challenge of our time. While this is a universal spiritual issue, Jews are already called to engage in the mitzvot of tikkun olam (repairing the world), bal tashchit (preventing needless waste and destruction) and tzar ba’alei chayim (protecting living creatures). Thus it should be no surprise that Jews are at the forefront of the environmental movement. More than a dozen new Jewish initiatives (and growing) have enthusiastically embraced the issue.
At Beth Israel Judea we’ve also taken up the challenge. Over a year ago we added an Eco-Kashrut clause to our kitchen and food policy. When sharing meals at BIJ, we encourage the use of dishes and silverware over disposables and we advise careful conservation of water. When purchasing single-use items we recommend eco-friendly products. With the help of Karen Kerner, we recently purchased and now display sets of clearly marked blue bins for recyclables and green bins for compostables. And we use non-toxic, eco-friendly products for most of our cleaning and custodial needs.
We cannot underestimate how powerfully the values and practices we embrace as a community influence our personal habits and choices.
After recent screenings of the new environmental documentary, “Bag It,” several BIJers told me they are now making a greater individual effort. While this pleases me, I hesitate to say dayenu because I know it is possible to do better. Recycling is good, but reducing and reusing should precede it. And a fourth R – redesign – is more critical than ever. As consumers we should vocally reject manufacturers ‘planned obsolesce’ and insist that electronics and other big ticket items be built–to-last rather than designed-for-disposal. We can no longer purchase goods wrapped in heavy plastic packaging and simply assume it will all be recycled. Like other viewers of the film, I was stunned to learn that the large majority of the items I place in my curbside recycling bin are shipped by barge for sorting by impoverished workers in China! Other plastic items are incinerated to toxic smoke or dumped into the ocean to become part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a growing island of plastic larger than the state of Texas. Our relative affluence offers freedom and power, but it requires that we exercise greater responsibility. Just because we can buy more, doesn’t mean we should. The acquisition of knowledge is far more valuable, but it also increases our obligation to act.
The “Bag It!” film emphasizes the impossibility of throwing things away. There simply is no such thing as away! For the 16th c. Kabbalists, the smallest act or decision had spiritual consequences. Let us embrace the challenge and do right – for our planet, for ourselves, for one another and for future generations. Keyn yehi ratzon – So may it be.