Think Green

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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 [13].) 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

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14 Responses

  1. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum makes a good point about how situations in medicine change. The last case of smallpox in the world was in 1979; it is no longer necessary to vaccinate anyone for smallpox. We could do the same for measles; because it has no known animal reservoir and either infection or vaccination usually results in lifetime immunity, it could be wiped out completely. But with rapid international travel it is unfortunately possible for an outbreak to spread very quickly and we have recently seen this; an outbreak in New York was linked by investigators to an outbreak in Isreal. Those who do not vaccinate are putting many others at risk including children too young to be vaccinated, and requiring the continuation of vaccination programs for another generation.

    Pertussus is more complex because neither infection nor vaccination guarantees lifetime immunity. The type of pertussus vaccine that was in use during my (and probably Rabbi Rosenblum’s) youth had an unsatisfactorily high incidence of severe adverse events and many persons naturally steered clear of the vaccine. Note that this is very different from the now debunked alleged association of vaccinations with autism; the assocation of the “whole cell” pertussus vaccine and serious neurological side effects, while small, was real. Fortunately, a newer form of the vaccine, the “acellular” vaccine, was developed because of these problems. It is very safe and can be given to most people. In most developed countries, only the safer vaccine is used although the older cheaper “whole cell” vaccine is still used in many poor countries. Only the acellular vaccine is currently used in the United States. (Can anyone report on the situation in Israel?) I was personally re-vaccinated for pertussus within the past year when I had my doctor administer the combination “DTaP” vaccine.

    Pertussus remains a serious public health problem, with hundreds of thousands of attributable deaths worldwide each year. Everyone should be vaccinated with the newer acellular vaccine unless there are contraindications particular to that individual.

  2. DF says:

    Environmental ideals are just peachy fine. The problem with them is that the ideals inevitably lead to laws, which lead to lawyers, which lead to government agencies and higher taxes, which lead to litigation, which leads to decreased prodcutivity and jobs going overseas – which leads us to where we are now.

    If someone personally chooses to beleive his washing a glass rather than using a plastic cup will make a difference on the planet – sei gesund. Just dont bother me about it.

  3. Moshe Hillson says:

    On the other hand, water is also becoming a scarce resource, especially here in Israel. Is there a way of calculating the ecological price of each of the two options (plastic dishes vs washing dishes under a tap with a “water saver” device)? The variables include: How much energy is input to the water works vs the plastic factory, short-term acute emergency (water in Israel) vs long-term disaster that will be difficult to solve (plastic landfills), etc.

  4. Evonne Marzouk says:

    An organization named Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”) has been exploring what the Torah can teach about the importance of protecting the environment. The organization’s leaders are frum and the content is all from a Torah perspective. For more information on Torah teachings related to the environment, visit http://www.canfeinesharim.org.

  5. Evonne Marzouk says:

    An organization named Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”) has been exploring what the Torah can teach about the importance of protecting the environment. The leaders are frum and the content is all from a Torah perspective. For more information on Torah teachings related to the environment, visit http://www.canfeinesharim.org.

  6. dz says:

    “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)”

    The Ramcha”l in Mesillas Yesharim Chapter 1 understands this Midrash quite differently – with almost the opposite message than was suggested by you. In his explanation of man’s duty in this world and of the constant “battle” for spiritual growth in which man finds himself, Ramcha”l writes, “If you look more deeply into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man’s use. In truth, man is the center of a great balance. For if he is pulled after the world and is drawn further from his Creator, he is damaged, and he damages the world with him. And if he rules over himself and unites himself with his Creator, and uses the world only to aid him in the service of his Creator, he is uplifted and the world itself is uplifted with him. For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they serve the “Whole Man,” who is sanctified with the holiness of the Blessed One. ….. Our Sages of blessed memory drew our attention to this principle in Midrash Koheleth, where they said (Koheleth Rabbah 7:28) – ‘See the work of God…’ (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Holy One Blessed be He created Adam, He took him and caused him to pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden. He said to him, `See how beautiful and praiseworthy are my works; and all that I have created, I have created for your sake. Take heed that you do not damage and destroy my world.’ ”
    The Ramcha”l seems to understand the Midrash as saying that the way to take care of Hashem’s world is by only using the physical world and the environment as an aid in the service of Hashem. Whereas one who uses the world for his own selfish desires and strays from the path of Torah and Mitzvos is destroying the environment.
    Apparently the best thing we can do for the environment – instead of focusing directly on global warming, greenhouses gases etc. – is to follow the Path of the Just and be the best Jews we can be …. and then the world will be just fine.

  7. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Charles Hall makes an important point re: measles. I was thinking primarily about the vaccines of my long-ago youth: smallpox and whooping cough. Even in the short-run measles is different, if only because everyone else is not vaccinating. The outbreaks of measles can and should be prevented.

  8. A.S.Pardeshi says:

    * Rather than throwing them away, give plastic toys or containers to children’s scrap stores or playgroups for reuse.
    * Use plastic containers and bags again or make them into something else. For example use yoghurt pots to grow seedlings, use the top part of drinks bottles as cloches for plants and offer clean plastic carrier bags to charity shops.
    * Buy products that are refillable.
    * Think of ways of reducing the need for packaging. Don’t add extra packaging yourself – a melon, a grapefruit or a bunch of bananas already has natural packaging – does it need to go in a plastic bag as well as your shopping bag, and does that already efficiently packaged dairy product or piece of meat really need another wrapper?
    * Ask your local authority recycling officers which materials are currently collected or may be collected in the future.
    * Look for products, e.g. bin liners and refuse sacks, made from recycled plastic, now available in many supermarkets. Also look out for products packaged in at least partially recycled material. For example, Shell Oil’s 1 litre and 4 litre Helix oil packs now contain a proportion of recycled plastic, collected from domestic and industrial waste.
    * If it does not already run one, suggest to your local authority that it considers starting a plastics recycling scheme. The development of market opportunities has meant that at the moment demand is outstripping supply of plastic bottles, so new initiatives are needed to feed the process and ensure its success.
    * Encourage your local authority to buy products, such as street furniture, made from recycled plastic rather than wood.

    http://www.indiacontents.com

  9. mb says:

    “Plastic does not degenerate and is difficult to recycle. Given worlds enough and time, the planet will eventually be overrun by plastic.”

    Probably not correct. Plastic is a new substance and the microbes haven’t found a way to feed on it and then it would disitegrate. An example of that is trees. For millions of years trees were not eaten by microbes and eventually got compressed into oil and coal. Blame the microbes for the higher oil price!
    Anyway, eventually they will get to plastic.

  10. Charles B. Hall says:

    “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.”

    I most strongly disagree. Unfortunately, there have recently been outbreaks of measles in frum communities; the adverse consequences of failure to vaccinate are now far more common than the extremely rare serious adverse events attributable to vaccination. People have no idea how unbeliveably contagious is measles.

  11. Jewish Observer says:

    “the Torah does charge us to be guardians of Hashem’s world”

    – while I agree with the general message, this seems like a mitzvah sichlis. If we frumsters would think of ourselves as citizen of the world, we should natually consider the practical effects of our ecological abuse. Only those so self centered as to not realize the effects of his actions need a formal “mitxvah” to tell him to be a mentch. this should not be any more necessary than to teach a baal habayis the “mitzvah” of taking out the garbage.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Thermoplastics are generally recyclable.

  13. Dov says:

    Very interesting. Many other mekoros not mentioned in the article, but presumably mentioned in the book, e.g. cutting down trees during seige.

    Does anyone know where HaSviva be’Halacha ve’Machshava is available?

  14. sarah shapiro says:

    I so aprecaite having this subject redefined from a Torah perspective.