Thankfulness and Tu B’Shvat

Most Tuesday nights, you’ll find me gathered around a table with women I’ve learned with for many years. We began with mussar and are now working our way through the Chumash, one perek a week. In Shemos perek 18, we encounter the Israelites, newly freed from slavery and complaining to Moshe about the lack of water. But the meforshim tell us that at this time, the Jews still had water left from perek 17.

As we reviewed the lesson, the conversation in my class turned to how that mindset manifests, with one of the ladies giving the example of her bubbie, who had just passed away. Alte Neche bas Moshe Heimowitz was a Holocaust survivor who reused the glasses from yahrzeit candles—family legend says she had both milchig and fleshing yahrzeit candles—and reused food bags, the ones that come inside a box of crackers or cereal or such, to freeze cookies.

I didn’t want to interrupt the shiur, but later I called the person who shared this information about her grandmother to tell her that I also reuse both plastic food bags and yahrtzeit candles, although not as drinking cups. Most families have an older relative (or the memory of an older relative) who is careful not to waste things. The responses from younger family members range from amused and loving laughter to aggravation. I remember feeling both as my grandmother would wrap up the rolls left over from the bread basket on our table when we were out for dinner. She had raised her children through the Depression, and she knew that the rolls would be thrown out by the restaurant but would likely get eaten at her home. She never lost the condition of being thankful for the small blessings that came her way.

This week I listened to a shiur given by Rabbi Yehuda Cahan of Cleveland on the upcoming holiday of Tu b’Shvat (Sunday night to Monday night). On Tu b’Shvat, HaShem renews the sustenance of the trees, and the gates of Heaven are open to our prayers. At the same time, various prosecuting angels are on hand to note reasons why prayers shouldn’t make it through those gates. Rabbi Cahan gave the example of people asking for parnasah (livelihood); the angels want to mention ways in which they wasted the money Hashem already allowed them to earn. To circumvent those angels, we wrap our requests up with thanks and praise. We might thank HaShem for all the years we did have a good income or for our current employment challenges, which are giving us real-world lessons in not taking things for granted.

Rabbi Cahan also spoke about not only thanking HaShem for material gifts but also enriching that thanks by thinking about not just the thing itself but all the other items that had to exist for the thing to be there in our hands: the factory that made it, the truck that delivered it, the store that sold it, and on and on. The entire shiur was magnificent, but that aspect particularly spoke to me.

The longer I live a low-waste life,  I find that my gratitude becomes deeper and more multifaceted. “Look,” I say to myself, “HaShem gave me the means to buy this yahrtzeit candle which is also a cup for holding the stirring stick when I am painting my latest project.” (They are also good for holding rolled-up plastic bags washed for reuse and as spoon rests.) HaShem gives us many blessings we don’t see because it’s so easy to let the abundance of modern life dull our hearts. It takes a mindset shift, a choice to step away from the constant messages the secular world sends that our value comes from what we can buy and the size of our bank accounts. I’m human, so it’s often hard for me to shift away from the view from the marketplace to the view from Har Sinai. I am thankful for the example of Avraham Avinu, who was called Ha-Ivri, the one who stood apart.

We stand apart, of course, from the bubbies and zaydies who withstood the inferno of the Holocaust. Still, in the moment of hearing my friend’s story of her grandmother’s milchig yahrtzeit candle cups, I caught a glimpse of a gratitude to HaShem that is entirely beyond our comprehension. I see a gratitude that transcended the loss that candle represents and turned it into a life surrounded by family and suffused with mitzvos and chessed. And I am both moved and inspired.


Click here to see the full list of changes I’ve blogged about, and their impact.

Amazon bag ban carbon emissions celery Chanuka Chanukah Chanukka Chanukkah COVID disinfect donuts doughnuts elul energy food waste frum Hannukah Hanukka Hanukkah jewish lag b'omer landfill lashon hara laundry line dry low-waste mishloach manos mishloach manot orthodox passover pesach plastic purim recycle recycling reduce retail therapy reusable reuse shopping single-use teshuva washcloth water zero-waste

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