I learned of the Jewish slant on conservation on my first flight to Israel in my late teens. Fate would have it that I was seated next to a very dignified and sage-looking haredi gentlemen. He was quite pleased, since he would not have to fend off small talk about soccer teams with some sabra from Tel Aviv. I was less pleased, since I would be forced to be on best behavior, even before arriving at my yeshiva destination.
I probably learned more on that flight than during the next month in yeshiva. I observed up-close the conduct of a Torah scholar (he was one of the heads of a large and prestigious yeshiva in Jerusalem) -- his constant smile, his inner joy, the immediacy of his connection to God.
What lasted the longest, however, was his minilecture about sugar packets.
When the flight attendants came around with the post-coffee refuse bag, the rabbi made sure to rescue the sugar from an ignominious end. "Sugar is such a wonderful gift!" he quickly explained. "God is so good to give it to us. How can we trivialize it by treating it as trash?"
His interest was not in recycling, preserving resources or contributing to a global garbage disposal problem. He was concerned with the sludge deposited upon our personalities when we take things for granted.
I was impressed at the time, but it took many years to appreciate that he had alerted me to one of the most attractive elements of Jewish life.
Members of other faiths are frequent guests at my Shabbat table They are fascinated with Shabbat itself, to be sure. All the stereotypes about a spiritless and slavish devotion to a cold law vanish with the songs and the spirit, while my wife has Wolfgang Puck beat badly by the time the second course comes along.
They are most fascinated, however, by "Brachot," by the variegated and nuanced system of blessings pronounced before eating different foods. Thanking God before eating is hardly something foreign to the Christian visitors. They are intrigued, however, by the questions that the children ask about which blessing to recite, whether one blessing "counts" for two kinds of food, whether they have eaten enough for an after-blessing. Isn't it enough just to say "thank you" to God?
Jews don't just acknowledge -- they take inventory. They notice the fine detail in a gift. Thus, they demand different blessings for all sorts of foods, making them more conscious of the specialness of everything in God's creation. The different blessings on produce of the ground and produce of the trees sensitizes us to the fact that God could sustain us by feeding us nothing but plastic airline food. In a world without the variety God created, we wouldn't even know the difference. Blessings, in their complexity, make us aware of the quality of divine gifts, not just their existence.
In this week's portions, God spells out the consequences to the Jewish people for obedience and disobedience to divine law. Rashi seems to turn around the plain meaning of the text that pledges, "You will eat your bread to satiety" (Leviticus 26:5). He comments, "You will eat a little, and it will be blessed within you." The Divine blessing is not in the bounty, Rashi implies, but in our ability to be nourished, satisfied and pleased by eating very little. This is indeed strange after the text explicitly speaks of truly bountiful harvests of plentiful food.
Rabbi Eli Munk, former chief rabbi of Paris, explains that satisfaction with little is a Jewish necessity, even in times of plenty. The quintessential Jewish reaction to a bumper crop is to share as much of it as possible with other peoples and nations. We should expect to limit our intake to improve the lot of others.
Such an ethic is hard to promote in a society that delights in the quick disposal of anything not needed at the moment, whether sugar packets, plastic dinnerware, broken VCRs or spouses who have aged. Might part of the fix not lie in the old system of blessings, which force us to look life squarely in the eye, and take note of how rich and beautiful it is, and how much we owe to God?
So if conservation is on your mind, think of the Jewish way: count your blessings.