Parashat Kedoshim

Stumbling Blocks

We need to learn to produce, sell, and consume fewer unnecessary products.

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The US Department of Commerce, created in 1921, serves to illustrate the role of the federal government in the promotion of consumption. The Commerce Department encouraged maximum consumption of commodities, producing films and leaflets advocating single-dwelling homes over multi-unit dwellings and suburban over urban housing.

Our present standard of housing is just one example of how the powers of consumerism have changed accepted norms, creating raised expectations of standards of living and causing us to use up more of the earth's natural resources.

Environmental Implications

A great many of our environmental concerns are caused by the subtle but potentially lethal stumbling block of consumerism. Consumerism has brought about many of the environmental crises facing the world today, such as global warming (by increasing burning of fossil fuels), species extinction (through the clearing of forests), the proliferation of landfills, and subsequent contamination of water from the residue of the chemicals used to produce more material goods.

The environmental movement, with its mantra of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is a response to the excessive over-production of a consumer society. As society conditions us to equate personal happiness with consumption of material goods, we are fighting an endless battle to minimize the environmental damage caused by the over-production and subsequent disposal of consumer goods which we really do not need. 

Today we find ourselves simultaneously the victims and culprits of the commandment not to place a stumbling block before the blind. The consumer is blinded (almost from birth) by advertising and the resulting need to consume, so that we no longer know what we really need. We are constantly searching to find ways to sell our own products, in order to accumulate enough wealth to purchase other people's products, because we have been blinded into thinking that we need them to be happy.

We need to learn to produce, sell, and consume fewer unnecessary products, whose waste can be seen in the proliferation of landfills that dot the urban landscape. Whether we produce, market, sell, or encourage the latest electronic gadget, ostentatious simcha, luxury home, late model car, or 99-cent toy that will break the next day, we should consider if what we are doing is ethical.

The Jewish and environmental response is to reduce our levels of consumption. In a world in which the public has been tripped into consumerism and over-production, our challenge is to reverse this trend.

Suggested Action Items:

1. Watch The Story of Stuff, a short Internet clip about where our resources come from and where they go. Sign up for updates and share the link with your friends.

2. Organize a toy exchange (or a hat exchange, or a book exchange) in your community, so that you don't need to buy new products. The goal here is not to give to the poor, but to share products so that you and your neighbors do not need to buy new things if the perfect thing is being unused in your neighbor's house. For a step-by-step guide to planning your exchange, click here.

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Carmi Wisemon is Executive Director of Sviva Israel, an educational-environmental organization based in Israel.