Looking with Fresh Eyes

This past Shabbos, our rabbi asked in his d’var Torah why it is that we always read Parashas Zakhor on Shabbos. Why couldn’t it be read on a Monday or a Thursday when men come to hear Torah? Why do we combine Shabbos, our day of rest, with this reminder to blot out Amalek? He said that the parsha needs to be tied together with the words of kiddush: “vai’chulu ha-shama’yim v’ha-aretz v‘chol tz’va’am.” But why?

Because it’s natural to ask, he said, why did HaShem let Amelek live after their treacherous attack? After all, HaShem had the power to squash Amalek “like a bug.” But HaShem wants us to remember things are up to us, that He finished the Heavens and the Earth and that He tasked us with completing the work, with looking for how we can and how we should work in partnership with HaShem.

For me, it was a reminder that HaShem created this perfectly circular system. After he created the Earth, everything naturally and on its own would either be reused or recycled, with absolutely no waste. It is only we, who created plastic that never biodegrades, who introduced permanent waste into the system. It is only we, by buying things that were designed to become obsolete and that degrade into toxic chemicals that work their way into groundwater and soil, that leach chemicals even when they are in landfills, who have imposed a linear system where the things we take out of the system aren’t being put back in in a form that is safe or useful.

It happened that my in-laws were visiting for Shabbos. At lunch, my father, who is 76 and remembers a time when things were very different, remarked on the way that we’ve lost the ability to see the potential in things. He had gone to the store to by some Lysol wipes to clean up the place where he volunteers on Tuesdays, but they were sold out. At the same time, the bottles of Lysol, which could easily be sprayed on a rag, set fully stocked up on the shelves next to the empty ones, because we’ve been so spoiled by choice that we look only for an item that is a perfect fit.

We can make our cycle less linear by reusing the things we buy, but it requires us to look with fresh eyes and say, “What could this be? What other purpose could this thing serve?” In the past week, I sent a dip for Shabbos to one friend in an olive jar and took a main, a salad, and a side to our Purim seuda, all without using disposables. In place of foil pans and plastic bowl, we took a glass baking pan and two baking sheets; the salad went in a glass bowl, with the dressing in a jar I had saved.

The practice of being mindful about HaShem’s creations makes me pause before I throw something out or put it in recycling and asked myself if there is a way I could not have created what has to go in the trash and if I could use something again before I threw it in the recycling. In this case, I had a jar all ready to make my salad dressing and transport it, in the form of a jar that once held chrain.

Here’s how it works at my house. I keep half of one very high cabinet where I used to store things like cookie cutters and specialty pans that got used once a year if that (I passed those along to someone who would be more likely to use them). I now keep glass and plastic containers for reuse there, after they have been thoroughly cleaned. For plastic food containers, I only reuse things that held food or ingredients that don’t have a smell. I’ve found that it’s impossible to get the smell out of a plastic container. I certainly don’t want to make salad dressing in a bottle that was once filled with chocolate syrup…yuck. For jars, I simply clean thoroughly, especially the lid. If the lid has a removable disk for a tight seal, pull it out and discard it. Some people recommend soaking or cleaning with vinegar or a baking soda paste, but I find that if I give it a good handwash (we don’t have a dishwasher) and store it in the cabinet with the lid off, the smell dissipates by the time I am ready to use it.

It has taken a lot of practice to train myself to see the possibilities of things before I throw them out, and that’s with having spent a lot of time with a grandmother who grew up poor and who was raising babies during the Great Depression and still used the creative reusing strategies she had needed then. If you need a push, just google or search on Pinterest for ideas to reuse whatever it is you’ve got on hand. (At the moment, I am saving bourbon bottles to make a set of outdoor lights for our patio. I got the idea from Pinterest.)

There is a certain amount of extra time and energy not to use foil pans and plastic bowls, but once I started doing it, I realized I had made it a bigger job in my mind than it is in real life. And that pang of guilt I used to feel each time I threw a pan I had used once into the garbage is gone. Of course, I still use them for shabbosim when I am having a lot of guests, yom tov, or weeks where things are especially busy around the house. I just have gotten into the practice of asking myself and my family, “Can we do this in a low-waste way? How low can we go before it impacts our oneg Shabbos or simchas yom tov?” That answer is going to be different for everyone, but it starts by asking it. 

Until next week,

Click here to see the ongoing impact of the changes I’ve made in my life (environmental and financial).

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