The Environmentally Conscious Jewish Home
For Jewish families, caring for the environment could be part of a wider consciousness of living in a world that is a divine gift.
Alongside the obvious benefit of sustaining the planet, the environmentally conscious home provides its occupants with a sense of accomplishment and even pride in personally doing something that will maintain, even better, one's world. For the believing Jew, this feeling of wellbeing should be all the more gratifying, for preserving the planet is not an end in itself, but part of a greater plan that encompasses the whole of one’s existence. This greater plan is laid out in Jewish law, based in the Torah. One may feel doubly rewarded by the overall satisfaction of living a life of mitzvot [commandments], and, within this context, living an environmentally sound existence.
Four principles guide those living in an environmentally conscious Jewish home. These principles reflect this modern day reality, where is no such thing as a free lunch, for the planet does not have an endless supply of resources.
The first principle originates in Shabbat observance: The Fourth Commandment, which begins "Remember the Shabbat day and keep it holy," deals with the issue of limited resources and the need for restraint. Shabbat is the day when G-d called a halt to His creative exertions. Just as God ceased His exertions on that day, so you shall cease yours. Just as at the end of the first week, God stopped expending His energy, so you will now do likewise.
In essence, the Jew remembers Shabbat by mirroring or copying God's restraint. Importantly, this "remembering" is an active rather than a passive process. Thus on Shabbat, the traditionally observant Jew actively reduces his/her "energies" by not driving and by not turning on electric lights. Significantly, the obligation is not limited to the individual; but rather is incumbent upon all those who would be home on the Sabbath -- family members and servants and work animals alike.
While the Sabbath is celebrated for one day, it is not meant to be an isolated point in time and space but rather a frame of reference for the entire week. This notion that Shabbat's influence is to be felt throughout the entire week is clearly seen in the opening of the Song of the Day (recited daily during the morning service): "Today is the first, second, third day of the Shabbat." The Song of the Day emphasizes that what one does on Shabbat is but an example of what one will do during the entire week.
Just as one cuts back on using electricity, gas and oil on Shabbat, so should s/he continue to do so during the rest of the week. Stated differently, the Sabbath is not an end, but a means for getting the Jew to reduce his/her use of energy-consuming products and services. Refusal to follow God's lead in reducing our demands on the world is fraught with dire consequences: "See My works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I have created, for you have I created it. Consider this and do not destroy and desolate My world, for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you"(Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7: 13).
The second principle is that to take responsibility for our health and well being. (This is how rabbinic midrash [commentary] interprets the words "Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously" in Deuteronomy 4:9). For, example, the consumer is required to know how household products affect well being and act accordingly.
Third, as an integral part of accepting responsibility for one's wellbeing, one likewise accepts the need to think of future generations:
"One day while walking on the road he [Honi the Circle-Drawer] noticed a man planting a carob-tree. Said Honi to the man: "You know that it takes seventy years before a carob-tree bears fruit; are you so sure that you will live seventy years and eat therefrom?' 'I found this world provided with carob-trees,' the man replied. 'As my ancestors planted them for me, so I plant them for my progeny.'"(Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 23a).
The assumption of a future means preparing one's children, (meaning the next generation) to take up the reins. Thus, in the daily recitation of the
Sh'ma, the declaration of the oneness and uniqueness of God, the Jew is told that whenever opportunity knocks--when one wakes up in the morning, when going for a daytime walk or when getting ready for bed at night -- one must "teach [the] children." Clearly implied in the Sh'mais the idea of incorporating teaching into home life.
Finally, Jewish law addresses the question of how to dispose of still usable items. This question is dealt with in the concept of bal tashhit that is, the idea of "you shall not destroy" (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). It implies, for instance, that household products of value that are no longer being used should be shared with others (especially the needy) who can use them. To destroy something is considered to be a kind of theft.
A few examples will perhaps help readers to either change or expand on their environmental consciousness. These examples (which readers will recognize as including some of the "R's" of the environmental movement) may be categorized into four groups: 1) use, 2) re-use, 3) reduction and 4) recycling.
First of all, one should look at the products found in the home. Are there safer alternatives that one may use? For example, one may use baking soda instead of scouring powder that might adversely affect one's water resources.
Newspapers make great cleaning rags for windows, mirrors, and chrome surfaces. For these cleaning jobs, one should use old newspapers instead of paper towels. While on the subject of cleaning, one may likewise effectively clean floors by using either plain boiling water or a vegetable-based floor soap. The water left from the washing is rich in plant nutrients. Once cooled, the gray water may be poured into the garden.
One must accept that there is a change in the seasons, both inside and outside of one's home. In the winter, it might be nice to walk around one's home in a short-sleeved shirt, but it is energy wasteful. One should instead put on a sweater and lower the thermostat. Surprisingly, this notion of dressing right for the weather is dealt with in Proverbs 31: 21, in the passage known as Eshet Hayilor "Woman of Valor": "She is not worried for her household because of snow, for her household is dressed in crimson.[wool]."
Like the activities mentioned in the Woman of Valor, composting has been practiced since ancient times. It is a simple and natural process of letting organic matter (pareve foods, without dairy or meat products, along with leaves, grass, etc.) break down until it forms humus, a product that helps all plants to grow. Obviously, composting is not just good for growing plants; it is also an excellent way to deal with waste.
Being environmentally conscious is an integral part of Jewish home life. It is a lifestyle based on doing, a lifestyle designed to impress examples upon one's children. Perhaps the motto of Israel's "Compost 2000" plant best sums up the environmentally conscious Jewish home. That motto is: "We did not inherit the world from our forefathers; we received it on loan from our children."
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