Plastic does not degenerate and is difficult to recycle. Given worlds enough and time, the planet will eventually be overrun by plastic.
Is worrying about such matters an indication of a mind addled by having seen too many exhibits at the Monterey Aquarium last summer of different species endangered by rampant pollution? Or are these legitimate Torah concerns?
The convenience of using plastic dishes are obvious. Plastic offers freedom from sinks brimming with unwashed dishes and fights about whose turn it is to wash the dishes. Against the convenience is the infinitesimal impact any change in our individual behavior would have absent similar changes by millions of others.
Here we come to an old problem in moral philosophy known as the Tragedy of the Commons. Let us say there are a variety of shepherds sharing a common grazing area. It is in the interest of each shepherd to increase the size of his herd. But if each shepherd follows that strategy the common grazing area will eventually be depleted bringing disaster to all.
Another example. The most rational strategy for an individual parent would be not to vaccinate his child to protect against the slight chance of serious adverse reaction. But that is true only so long as all other parents vaccinate. But if other parents make the same calculation, smallpox and whooping cough will soon return and pose a far greater threat to every child.
In short, if each person pursues his own rational short-term interest, the result can be long-term disaster for all.
Environmental consciousness is not yet high on the chareidi educational agenda. Part of the reason lies in the anti-human bias that permeates so much of the secular environmental movement and the nonsense perpetrated in the name of environmentalism. The United States is currently foregoing drilling for ten billion barrels of oil on .01% of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It has chosen, at the behest of environmentalists, to send the money for those ten billion barrels money to foreign supporters of international terrorism rather than disturb a couple of moose.
And yet the Torah does charge us to be guardians of Hashem’s world: “When Hakadosh Boruch Hu created Adam HaRishon, He took him and showed him all the trees in Gan Eden and said to him: ‘See My works, how pleasant and beautiful they are… . Make sure that you do not ruin and destroy My world, for if you ruin it, no-one will repair it after you’” (Koheles Rabba, 91 .) A recent volume entitled Hasviva B’halacha Ve’machshava, published by the Sviva Yisrael organization demonstrates that environmental concerns are dealt with extensively in the halachic literature. The greatest of poskim wrestled with issues such as whether, and under what circumstances, it is permissible to cut down a tree. In the Chasam Sofer (II:120) we find a strong presumption in favor of preserving natural resources like trees, even if it means uprooting and replanting them elsewhere.
Apart from the pure halachic considerations, a serious consideration of the future consequences of our actions on the environment is part and parcel of a Torah worldview. As Torah Jews, who worry not only about the World to Come but about the world that we will leave to our children, our orientation is towards the future.
The late Rabbi Moshe Sherer liked to point out that the word metzachek, in the present tense, hints to the cardinal sins (Rashi to Bereishis 21:9). Yet the same root, in the future tense, forms the name of Yitzchak Avinu. Teaching our children to contemplate the future is thus part of instilling a proper Torah perspective.( Not by accident was UTJ’s Rabbi Moshe Gafni voted the most environmentally concerned MK.)
Environmental consciousness also makes us aware of the cumulative impact of many small acts for good or bad. When Sviva Israel makes its presentations in chareidi schools, the children are fascinated to learn what a large environmental “footprint” each of them leaves.
Learning to contemplate the cumulative effect of small actions has implications, both mundane and sublime.
Anyone who has ever worked their way out of overdraft or managed to lose five kilos will tell you that the process starts with dozens of little decisions –– withstanding an importunate teenager’s demand for a cell phone, cutting back on cigarettes, foregoing a bottle of soda for the Shabbos table, or washing dishes instead of using plastic.
And so it is with any improvement in our middos. Small actions are the key to personal transformation. Reaching into one’s pocket a thousand times in response to the outstretched hand, writes the Rambam, does more to turn a person into a giver than writing a single check for the same amount. In the same vein, the ba’alei mussar counsel that spiritual aliyah should take place in small, incremental steps rather than by leaps and bounds.
The key to how alive we are as Torah Jews is the significance that we attach to the most commonly repeated acts –– to every beracha and the most commonly performed mitzvah. As Rabbi Chaim Volozhin stresses, even the smallest actions hold the potential to open up pipelines of Divine blessing to the world or its opposite. We do not serve in order to receive a prize for ourselves, Rav Chaim writes (Ruach HaChaim I:3), but we do seek that each of our actions should open up conduits of blessing to the world.
Instilling in ourselves a consciousness of the significance of seemingly small actions, then, is part not only of natural ecology, but of our spiritual ecology as well.
Does this mean that the Rosenblum family will be giving up all plasticware? Not necessarily. As one of the contributors to Hasviva B’halacha Ve’machshava points out: Getting rid of plastic can be good for the environment but bad for your marriage. Still I hope that a few more dishes will get washed , being careful to turn off the tap between each dish, of course – even if I’m the one doing the washing.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha on July 30, 2008