Friday, February 11, 2011

Tetzaveh 5771: Disposable World

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, Feb. 12, 2011.)

This is a sermon that should have been delivered a few weeks ago, around the time of Tu Bishvat. But for various reasons it was not, so here we are. No matter - the message is just as important and applicable.

Actually, I have been working on this an entire year. In most cases, a Shabbat sermon begins for me about 4 days before Shabbat. In this case, I had this idea a year ago, around Tu Bishvat 5770. And I have been working on it steadily ever since, particularly on the visual aid, which we’ll get to in a moment. (I love visual aids!)

Here are a few questions:

When the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry, did they take the good china? Did they take the fancy silverware? What did they eat off of in the desert?

Now, if the Exodus were taking place today (leaving aside for a moment the internal turmoil in present-day Egypt), do you think they would have eaten on the run using actual plates and forks and knives (not that matzah cuts that well). No. They would have used plasticware. Disposables.

The parashah that we read today, Parashat Tetzaveh, details the fine materials used for the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary or Tabernacle. As would be expected for something that is set aside for holy purposes, it is made out of the highest-quality materials available: gold, finely colored linen cloth, precious and semi-precious stones, fancy-schmancy woods and rocks and animal skins. No polyester, no plastics, no artificial anything.

OK, so that’s funny. There were, of course, no human-made polymers available 3200 years ago, when the Israelites were wandering through the desert. Or, for that matter, most of human history; the first entirely synthetic polymer, known as Bakelite, was developed in 1907.

So here is a fun fact about synthetic polymers, which we usually call plastics: they do not break down in the environment at the rate that natural materials take to break down. Estimates range from 500-1000 years for most plastics.

The entire world produces and uses about 200 million tons of plastic each year. Our American share of that is about 26 million tons, and only about 5% of that amount is recycled. Put another way, 95% of the plastic we use in America eventually ends up in a landfill.

Now, as I have explained in this space before, in the very small town where I grew up in Western Massachusetts, there was no municipal garbage collection. You had to bring your own garbage to the municipal landfill, which everybody referred to as “the dump.” My dad and I used to have fun going to the dump - it was an opportunity to pick over the cast-off pre-owned items of others - and we usually came home with less stuff than we arrived with.

But here’s the salient point: at the dump, we had to personally throw our own garbage onto the current pile. All around us, we could see the landfill personnel managing our whole town’s garbage - pushing it around from place to place with heavy equipment, sorting it, covering it, uncovering it, and so forth.

And it continued that way until some time in the ‘90s when the dump closed, because it was full. There was no more room for anybody’s garbage. The Williamstown Municipal Landfill became the Williamstown Transfer Station, where my father to this day brings his garbage, throws it into a big trailer, when the trailer is full, it gets carted off to somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind.

Americans generate about 250 million tons of garbage every year. That’s nearly a ton of garbage per person, about 4.5 pounds of waste per day for each woman, man, and child. 2 kilograms. By this time tomorrow, all of us in this room together will have produced roughly 2700 pounds of garbage. That’s about the weight of a small car, and it takes up a MUCH bigger volume.

12 percent of that garbage will be plastic. That’s over 300 pounds of synthetic polymers. In one day.

Here’s a mental exercise. Take a moment to think back to every plastic fork you have ever used. At every party, at every inexpensive restaurant, at qiddush here at Temple Israel, at picnics, at benei mitzvah celebrations, etc. Where are those forks now?

Well, in some sense, they are all still with us. Every plastic fork you have ever used is sitting right now, buried in a mound of garbage.

Now we come to the part about the visual aid.

These are all the plastic forks that I used from last Tu Bishvat until this one, three weeks ago. Most of them I used here at Temple Israel (I’m here a lot!), but some I used on airplanes, at weddings, at last year’s second-night Pesah seder, all over the State of Israel, at the Youth House beach day in August, and so on.

I tried to save every single one, although that’s actually quite hard. The inclination to simply throw everything away when you’re done eating off disposables is VERY hard to beat. So I threw away a few. I usually figured it out the moment after, but, rather than risk having somebody see their rabbi picking a dirty fork out of the garbage, I found a way to substitute somebody else’s used fork for mine - my daughter Hannah happily volunteered several. In any case, I used almost all of these forks personally, and probably the number is pretty accurate.

It’s 141 forks, about three per week. And I consciously tried not to use that many, either. But of course, I did throw away the plates, the spoons, the knives, the cups, the napkins, and the leftovers. I suppose that if I could have saved all of that stuff (a nasty thought, it’s true), I would have to have a MUCH bigger bag. And, of course, some day I will have to throw away this bag as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, God has given us this Earth, and we are gradually filling it with garbage. We dig holes in the ground to cast away our disposables, some of which are poisonous. We douse our fruits and vegetables with pesticides and chemical fertilizers that run off into ground water. We are filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide, while we feverishly chop down trees in the rain forests.

The Torah tells us the following in Parashat Bereshit, the very beginning. When God created the world, and then created human beings, He gave them a task:

Gen. 2:15 (p. 15 in our Humash, Etz Hayyim)

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.

“The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.”

We should do more tilling and tending, and less driving, burning, chopping, spraying, and disposing.

Now, I cannot stand up here and tell you never to use plasticware again, because that is clearly ridiculous. During the course of this Shabbat, I have already disposed of a bunch of plastic implements. Even as we speak, the Temple’s staff is laying out forks, knives, spoons, cups, and plates downstairs in the Crystal Ballroom in preparation for the qiddush reception.

And we don’t even have a dishwasher in this building.

But I can suggest the following:


Think a little more about what you consume. Think about the miles you drive, the water you leave running while you brush your teeth, the plastic you throw away, the setting on your thermostat. Think about the fact that our relatively great personal wealth here in America enables us to go about life without thinking seriously about conservation.

But tilling and tending, as God has commanded us, requires careful thought.

Back to Exodus, to today’s Torah reading, Parashat Tetzaveh, in which we read earlier about about the Hoshen Mishpat, the breastplate of decision. This is truly one of the coolest objects described in the Torah, and it was part of the whole priestly-sacrificial cult that was the path through which our ancestors worshipped God. The hoshen mishpat contained a fitting for the Urim and Tummim, two objects which channeled God’s word. If the Kohen Gadol / high priest needed to chat with God, the Urim and Tummim, in some mystical, magical way, made that possible. (Maybe you know that it says “Urim veTummim” on the Yale University coat of arms.)

So if the Urim and Tummim oracle were functioning today, and the subject of the earth came up (perhaps in the context of the discussion of why there are suddenly tornadoes in Great Neck and multiple snowstorms in Oklahoma), I can imagine God telling us the following:

“What on Earth are you doing? Did I not tell you in Bereshit, the book of Genesis, just after I created you, to take care of this planet? Instead, you convert oil into plastic, use it once, and throw it away. Your material goods are disposable, and you treat My Creation - the air, the water, the mineral bounty - as disposable as well. Shame on you for fashioning disposable lives from the eternal things that I have given you.”

Maybe that is what God would say. Regardless, the future depends on our choices today. What may seem inconsequential to each of us individually will have a huge impact when multiplied by 300 million Americans, or indeed 7 billion people around the world. Now is the time to think.

That is a belated Tu Bishvat thought for you. Shabbat shalom.

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