and Spiritual Recycling
Trigger Warning: this article contains unflattering references to the hallowed institution of recycling. If you manage to stick it out until the end, you will hopefully enjoy its happy ending.
I was raised in the (80s and) 90s. We were heavily brainwashed to reduce, reuse & recycle through government-sponsored programs in school assemblies and on TV. This was done not in an aggressively guilting way as has become popular in certain circles in recent years, but rather, in a positive, idealistic, you-can-do-it kind of way. As a result, I continue to try to fish out mistakenly-chucked-out plastic, glass and cardboard out of our garbage can, wash greasy plasticware, and stuff it all into our blue bin, which is always overflowing on the momentous day that is recycling day (which is once every two weeks, if we’re lucky!).
I continue to do this even after a harrowing recycling experience that happened to me last year, which I will share with you here.
We had just moved to Florida, and had tons of cardboard boxes from the move. I folded everything nicely, but the recycling people didn’t pick it up. I called to figure out why not, and was told that it was too much for them to haul, but if I “really cared,” I could take it myself to the “recycling center.” I asked for the address, loaded our minivan, and shlepped the stuff over there, driving for nearly 30 minutes to get there, all the while feeling like I was doing a kind-of pseudo-mitzvah (which is precisely the feeling those 1990’s government programs were hoping to engender in our impressionable minds).
Upon arriving at the facility, I was asked by the lady at the gate to prove my residency in the county with a copy of my lease, which I did. It all felt quite official (as much as a dump can feel official). As she was corroborating my identity and eligibility, I noticed the car in front of me was hauling old furniture and other junk, which were clearly not recyclable. I asked the lady to please point me towards which one of the huge dumpsters was for recycling. She dryly responded, “it doesn’t matter.” Puzzled, I tried to clarify what I thought was a reasonable question. She said, “it makes no difference — it’s all going to the same place.”
Perplexed, disappointed, and feeling lied-to, I backed the minivan to the dump’s edge, got out, and peered below. I then somewhat sadly proceeded to drop my carefully-folded cardboard onto the indiscriminate pile of busted sofas, household garbage, and scattered recyclables below.
I drove home, soul-searching for meaning in recycling in the face of heavy disenchantment.
You may be wondering if I still recycle after this experience?
Please let me share with you how I came to look at my practice of recycling in case you find it helpful,1 and why I believe this perspective is particularly resonant this time of year, especially during the holiday of Sukkot (which starts at sunset tonight, Monday night, and lasts one week).
Even if the whole thing weren’t a sham,2 every recycler must contend with the fact that the impact of any one plastic bottle or cardboard box, or even the aggregate impact of a single person on the global environment is negligible.
Torah trains those who practice mitzvot to generally think first in terms of the intrinsic impact of the action on the one performing the action, and second, in terms of the impact beyond the person.3
Whether or not we as a civilization have figured out how to recycle in an efficient way can be thought of independently from whether or not the act of recycling is beneficial to the one who practices it.
Let’s explore one of the reason why.
Jews throughout history have often been accused of being “cheap.”
At least in modern U.S. history, this is demonstrably untrue. Jewish Americans lead the country in per capita donations to charitable causes.
I believe that the correct understanding of the Jewish mindset is not that we are cheap, but rather that we are generally “economical.”
Our culture abhors waste.
This is, of course, in part, a function of being a community of recently persecuted immigrants who arrived on these shores with not much more than the shirts on our backs.
But I’d like to claim that our allergic reaction to waste runs deeper.
I believe that our outlook stems from the same mentality that insists that every sentence, every word, and every letter in the Torah is essential — loaded with irreplaceable meaning. This is a corollary of our belief in its Divinity. A document written by human beings will always have a least some fat and flourish that can be trimmed off — a line here, a word there. Humans often produce things on whims, cut corners, and can only think things through until a certain limit. But if indeed a document were truly composed by God — whatever that would look like — there’s simply no reason to think that there should be even a single drop of ink that would be spilled in vain.
If you find this hard to believe when it comes to the Torah, you’ll find this next part even harder to believe: no experience in your life goes to waste, even if it was a product of a mistake you made.
Sukkot is named after the mitzvah to live (eat, sleep, hang out) in makeshift shacks, called “sukkot,” during the course of the seven-day holiday. The Torah describes the materials that they should be made from, particularly their roofs, with the phrase, “from the [stuff[ you’ve collected from the [leftovers] on your threshing floor and vineyard,” meaning, the junk you were going to toss out after you’ve gathered the produce that is actually valuable to you.
Why do we have to start the new year by sitting in a shack whose shade is made of what would have been trash? What is this meant to mean to us? How is this practice meant to change our lives?
The answer is gorgeous and indeed potentially life-changing if we take the seven days in the sukkah to internalize its message and deep counsel.4
The month preceding Rosh Hashana, the month of Elul, was meant to wake us up from our sleepwalking existence by fanning the flames of desire to lead the lives we believed in our heart of hearts we were born to lead.
Rosh Hashana was the culmination of this jarring wake up call by sounding the shofar (this time officially), and by spending two days living as if the way we lived those days would determine the coming year for us (because it did).
In the wake of Rosh Hashana, we had what remained of the 10 Days of Teshuva, which granted us opportunities to reflect on who we really were, and decide if our habits represented the people we want to be, and knew we were capable of being.
Finally, we arrived just a few days ago at Yom Kippur. Analogous to a process of effective psychotherapy, we were hopefully able to achieve distance from our bad habits, embrace better ones, and most importantly, identify with our deepest, truest selves. By verbalizing and owning up to those habits we regretted engaging in, we released a least some of the trauma and baggage of regrets that otherwise hold us back from a better future.
All of this sounds wonderful, but it doesn’t change the fact that our experiences, even if we come to regret the mistakes that led to them, are still a part of us, forming the very fabric of our personalities. A bit of reflection reveals that they always will. Our experiences are forever.
If a person was expecting their mental hard drives to have been wiped clean through a sort of Divine disk formatting on Yom Kippur, they probably woke up the next day feeling disappointed, still hauling trash from the past.
After all the inner work of 40+ days, one could ask himself “now what?!”
“I have all these experiences lying around in my psyche that I’m no longer interested in shlepping.”
Enters Sukkot to teach us that nothing should go to waste. The same God Who granted us forgiveness allowed us to make those bad decisions last year that we came to regret. The therapeutic process from Elul to Yom Kippur allows us to finally take refuge in the fact that retroactively we can say that “it was all meant to be” because our mistakes made us into who we are today, and the raw experiences at the core of those mistakes can and should be recycled, and now used for the good.
We learn from them. We’re humbled by them. We’re more empathetic towards others because of them. We appreciate the value of our good decisions more-so because of them. We are less interested in making any further bad decisions in light of them. Our experiences can really provide us great shelter in the sweltering sun of life.
One day, we’re going to figure out the whole material recycling thing. In the meantime, I’m going to keep scraping the scraps off of our plastic plates and recycling them because doing so further ingrains in me the principle that in God’s world, nothing is for naught. If we do the work of figuring out who we really are — who we truly want to be — we can scrape the scraps off ourselves, and spiritually recycle the experiences that we’ve been gifted along the way. If we do this, we will live with the joy of knowing that we’re always surrounded by His loving guidance, even if we choose not to follow it.
Chag sameach! Have a very happy holiday!
I credit my overarching approach towards recycling to my friend and colleague Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo who very articulately presented his deontological approach to us many years ago in New York City at a conference for Jewish educators.
To be clear, I don’t believe recycling is a national conspiracy. I am just aware that I live in a state and district that doesn’t care all that much about it.
This profound insight we present here is the tip of the iceberg of the approach of Rabbi Refael Moshe Luria, a descendant of the larger than life Arizal, in his work Zman Simchateinu. It is referenced and ellucidated in my dear friend Rabbi Moshe Gersht’s work on the holiday of Sukkot titled Succos Inspired (chapter 7).