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Sustaining Jewish Memory

I was recently speaking with a colleague about how much more green and sustainable we were in the “good old days.” Growing up in the Great Depression, many of our relatives integrated the lessons of conservation because economics dictated that they do so. How many of our bubbes would keep the house thermostat low in the winter and tell you to put on a sweater, reuse food containers for storage, darn socks or refurbish household items with leftover fabric and paint?

More recent generations have become less frugal; we purchase products that make our lives simpler. It’s easy to throw things away and cheap to buy more. We have begun to recognize that our actions have far reaching impacts.

Conscious awareness of the scarcity of resources is ingrained into our Jewish DNA, but not only through our bubbes. Imbedded in our ancient texts and tradition are practices to protect and preserve our resources for future generations. Jewish law teaches us to avoid destruction and waste of natural and human-made resources. Specifically, the Talmud greatly expands on the biblical prohibition of baal tashchit, forbidding the destruction of fruit trees with an ax during wartime, to include other objects and methods of destruction—the rationale for this principle being that, if it is to be applied during the difficulties of a wartime situation, then how much more so should it apply during other times.

The anonymous work Sefer Ha-Chinuch, based on the writings of the famous 12th-century rabbi and Torah scholar Maimonides, describes the mitzvah of baal tashchit as “the way of the righteous and those who improve society,” of those who oppose all destruction and waste. Likewise, a prominent Orthodox leader of 19th-century Germany, Rabbi Hirsch, saw baal tashchit as the most basic Jewish principle of all, because it is an acknowledgment that the world is created by G-d and that its elements are lent to people to use wisely.

As stated in the Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah, G-d says to the first humans after their creation, “See My works, how beautiful and excellent they are! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it” (Ecclesiastes, 7:13). This Jewish tenet of preserving the earth for future generations resonates with modern concerns for sustainability, and frames the context for the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. We should internalize this as a course of action to address the very viability of our own Jewish community. Protection of our resources must be a priority of and a shared responsibility within our community.

Previous generations whom we viewed as frugal were actually connecting to and espousing deeply rooted Jewish beliefs. We should acknowledge the wisdom and values of our bubbes as we work to repair and conserve for future generations. How will you make your connection? Some ideas:

  1. Apply by the adage: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without
  2. Replace your clothes dryer with: one sunny day, some rope or cord, and clothespins. No cost, no maintenance, no carbon footprint.
  3. Rain is free. We pay for water. Collecting rainwater for landscaping and gardens will slash your water bill and help preserve infrastructure by reducing the stress on storm-water systems.
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