Last week I went somewhere I haven’t been since before Pesach, the party goods store, a place I used to visit at least once a month. Earlier this year, my family kicked the disposable tableware habit. When I started, I wasn’t sure how we’d do. We don’t have a dishwasher— I’m waiting for next year’s kitchen remodel (IY” H)— so was afraid the kids who are old enough to wash dishes might not get on board. I introduced these changes bit by bit, letting my family adjust to one change before starting another.
I started by replacing paper napkins with cloth. We already had quite a few in a drawer in the living room, so why didn’t we bring them out and use them? Since I’m in charge of the laundry, the impact only fell on me in terms of washing and ironing the napkins. The change really seemed to increase the sanctity of our Shabbos table. Then we started using only real plates and bowls. Nobody loves washing dishes in cold water, especially the kind of cold water that comes out of the pipes in February in Cleveland. Still, it’s worth it for the extra kavod we show the Shabbos. This does mean more dishes for me because the kids did balk about washing dishes in water cold enough to turn your hands blue. We still use paper plates for fish and dessert, mostly because my kids have broken all but two of our small plates, and I haven’t made the time to pick out new dishes.
At our house, the last few weeks were a whirlwind. My husband and I were trying our best to work from home, switch out days at the office, put the last touches on the sukkah, finish up the cooking, plan activities for chol hamoed, and do all the last-minute things that need doing before the days from Sukkot to Simchas Torah.
In fact, I was so busy that on several days leading up to the chagim and during chol hamoed, I didn’t even do my morning journaling in my Bullet Journal. Typically, each day, I write down three specific things I’m grateful for. It’s a wonderful practice that helps me stop each day and consider how much I have and how grateful I should be to HaShem for all my blessings.
When I stop to write my gratitude notes, it often strikes me as strange that I have so much to be grateful for, but if I don’t take the time to focus on that fact. It’s all too easy to take all the material comforts I have for granted, focusing on what I want now and what I don’t have, rather than all the blessings I have at hand. It’s an unanswered question for me: Why do we have so much and yet we still have to remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have? I think part of it is that products and services are marketed to us such that many times they create a “need” and show you the company has just the right product to fill that need. We’re left feeling as if there is a lack, although none exists.
Lately, my Facebook feed has been filled with ads for a “everlasting match” that you clip on a keychain. I found myself looking at the different options, thinking how neat and helpful it would be to have a match always at the ready, although you couldn’t use it to light Shabbos or Yom Tov candles because you have to extinguish it. Why am I looking at these ads? If I count the number of times I have needed a match on my keychain in my entire life, it comes to precisely zero occasions. For a moment, I was caught up in an artificial need, a need created by the advertisement. And I know the same thing will happen again. The yetzer hara is nothing if not reliable.
Lately, I’ve been reading Battle Plans: How to Fight the Yetzer Hara by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller and Sara Yoheved Rigler. In it, they talk about the challenge of materialism and quote the Ramchal, writing at the end of Mesillas Yesharim, who says:
If a person endeavors to transcend and distance himself from materialism completely and to achieve deveikus in Hashem moment by moment . . . then even at the time he’s busy with material pursuits that his body demands, his soul is not going to abandon its consistent state of deveikus. . . . A person in that state could be attached to Hashem all of the time and his [physical] nature won’t hold him back. His physical acts are indeed holy.
“If a person endeavors . . .” What a powerful thought. By changing my mindset about the physical world, I can achieve deveikus with Hashem. With this mindset, I can live in the awareness that Hashem has truly blessed me bakol mikol kol.
Which brings me back to disposables. Because it had been at least six months since we kicked the disposable habit, it seemed strange to be stocking up on plates, napkins, and foil pans. On the advice of the Ramchal, I focused on what my spiritual needs were, which were to truly enjoy the chag as z’ man simchateinu. When we’ve taken “real” dishes out to the sukkah, pieces have wound up broken (still sad years later about losing my favorite glass water pitcher, a wedding gift). It’s also such a schlep to bring everything into the sukkah and back into the house that I wind up wanting to simplify the meals rather than include an item that requires another plate or a different item of silverware, even if it’s something I think everyone will enjoy.
So instead of feeling burdened or resentful, I marched myself proudly into the party goods store and bought lovely paper plates (which decompose, unlike plastic) and ultra-fancy paper napkins to match. I made sure to pick Yoshi cups that don’t have metallic trim so we could wash and reuse them over the chag instead of putting out new for every meal.
And now that all the holidays are over for the year, we will use the remaining disposables only rarely, and I won’t be buying more until Pesach rolls around.
PS: I’ve written about related issues in the past. To read about how community standards can make it harder to use disposables (and how we virtually stopped using disposable plastic baggies), click here.
To read about ways to cut out plastic containers and foil pans, click here.
Most importantly, read about how to avoid all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to cutting your waste. I wrote back in the spring about a friend who was struggling with her decision to give up disposables amidst trying to make Pesach and a simcha and deal with a global pandemic. “Sometimes you just need to say, ‘This week I need to do this thing that isn’t low-waste.’ Or, you need to reset your own expectations for the future. If it’s too much to nix disposables for Shabbos, could you use a mix of reusable and disposable, say paper for fish and dessert but real plates for mains and soup? If you can’t give up paper plates during the week, could you stop using them just for lunch? Or use real plates for adults and paper for kids? Making a difference doesn’t mean doing everything perfectly all the time. It means doing what you can do at a level you can sustain over time.”