It’s Not Easy Being Green – But it is a Mitzvah!

We cannot underestimate how powerfully the values and practices we embrace as a community powerfully influence our personal habits and choices.

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Succulents in the Rock - Dor Nachsholim Preserve, Israel.  July 2010.  Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer
Succulents in the Rock - Dor Nachsholim Preserve, Israel. July 2010. Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer

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.

Selichot for the Earth

How relevant this story is as we witness the disastrous consequences of the continuously gushing oil-rig in the gulf of Mexico! How helpless and angry we feel as the days pile up and we consider its terrible impact on the health and lives of countless individuals and creatures! After watching so many important films like the March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Wall E, Avatar and others, we wonder whether we’ve been positively changed or simply entertained.

Oak tree in Olema, January 2010 Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer
Oak tree in Olema, CA. January 2010 Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer

A young boy had a special relationship with his favorite tree. He played in its leaves and enjoyed its shade. This made the tree happy because it had much to give. As the boy grew older he climbed its branches and built a fort inside it. The tree was glad to provide joy and pleasure for the child. When the boy grew up the tree gave its fruit to the young man to sell. It also gladly offered its branches for the young man to build himself a home. Several years passed and the tree surrendered its trunk for man to build a boat. When, as an old man, he came seeking one last gift from the tree, only a stump remained. So the he sat down on it, and rested.

Shel Silverstein’s familiar children’s story, The Giving Tree, has always been disturbing to me. Perhaps the author’s intent was to get us to consider our habit of excessive consumption. Perhaps he meant to get us to question our default-setting in how we humans, relate to the earth. Perhaps he meant to jog our conscience so that we would remember how deeply we really do care about our fragile little blue planet. We live most often on auto-pilot, but in our heart-of-hearts we want neither to consume the earth’s resources to depletion nor poison it beyond repair.

Gazing out from Lands End, December 2009, Photo:  Rabbi Rosalind Glazer
Gazing out from Lands End, in San Francisco, CA, December 2009. Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer

How relevant this story is as we witness the disastrous consequences of the continuously gushing oil-rig in the gulf of Mexico! How helpless and angry we feel as the days pile up and we consider its terrible impact on the health and lives of countless individuals and creatures! After watching so many important films like the March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Wall E, Avatar and others, we wonder whether we’ve been positively changed or simply entertained.

Our ancestors described two models of relationship between human beings and the earth. In Genesis, man is given contradictory commands in relation to the planet–to be consumers and to be stewards. As the “crown of creation” man is at once called upon to subdue the earth and conquer it while also being warned to guard it and protect it. These opposing messages are confusing, yet we know that both inclinations exist within each of us, pulling us daily in both directions.

In the midrash, our sages tell a story about Honi the Circle-maker who planted carob trees for future generations. He responds to a passerby who comments on the uselessness of his endeavors saying that it did not matter that that particular tree would not bear fruit in his lifetime. Nevertheless he felt obligated to plant it because his own grandfather, and his before him, had also planted to benefit future generations.  How can Honi serve as a model for us in sustaining hope for future?  How can his example boost our sense of responsibility and connection to the earth and help us to renew our commitment to leaving a leave a legacy for those who will come after us?

Waimea Canyon, Kauai, July 2008.  Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer
Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii, July 2008. Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer

How well are we fulfilling the mitzvah being stewards for the earth?  The first stage of selichot is awareness. Only then can we articulate our insights by ‘fessing-up.  Then comes responsible action, teshuvah.  What teshuvah do we need to do in our relationship with creation? 

During the final days of Elul, 5770, we will gather at BIJ on Selichot night to watch a timely film and contemplate what teshuvah (self-correction) we need to make in all our relationships, including our relationship with the natural world. We will consider and discuss whether we are prepared to organize our community to build a culture of sustainability for the future. Perhaps the time has finally arrived to call for an end to our dependency on fossil fuels. Will we use this moment of crisis to write and visit our congress people?  Will we implore them to support the building of an economy that will sustain life on our planet by capping and reversing the effects of this global crisis?

I look forward to hearing your perspectives and sharing thoughts on this important issue.