A few years back, my son Daniel converted me about bottled water. I had thought that drinking pure and healthy water was an act of environmental awareness, but he helped me see it the other way around. Spending resources to make little bottles that could only hold one long drink, to put water into those bottles, ship them all around the country, put them on shelves and sell them one by one, could hardly be corrected just by recycling the bottles after we used them. Better to stick with plain old tap water, or tap water we filter ourselves, and a reusable bottle that might last years. If frugality is a virtue—and Mussar insists that it is—it applies especially to the earth resources that Hashem has entrusted to us. As rebbetizin Malkah points out in her article entitled “and to keep it” (at www.rivertonmussar.org where this blog appears too), “Being frugal with the resources of our planet is not political—it is theological.”
Theology isn’t just theoretical, though, so let’s review some everyday ways to practice eco-frugality.
- Remember that recycling is second-best. It’s good to make sure you put your used water bottle in a recycling bin, but it’s even better not to buy water in a bottle at all. (I’ll admit that I don’t follow this rule rigidly. In some circumstances it’s better to buy a bottle of water to make sure you drink enough of the healthy substance.) Likewise, it’s good to recycle your shopping bags, but it’s a lot better to bring your reusable bag with you to the store.
- Walk don’t drive. Avoid firing up the engine for those little trips. Walking takes time, but it’s the most elegant way to multi-task that I can think of. You’re getting exercise while you’re getting wherever you need to go, and you can take advantage of the time to pray or just think. If the distance is too great for walking, consider using public transportation or combining multiple trips into one.
- Buy local if you can. One of the thoughts that weaned me off bottled water was the distance the stuff had to be transported. Drinking water schlepped from France or Italy or Fiji seems crazy in our day of three or four dollar a gallon gas. Locally grown produce and domestic over imported food and drink make sense.
It’s clear that small measures like these won’t tip the balance toward saving the planet, but they are steps in the right direction. Just as important, they help work a change within us. As with every middah, we practice frugality not only for its outward effect—conserving money or natural resources—but even more for its effect upon our own souls. So what inward effect does eco-frugality have upon us? First, it stirs up appreciation for the bountiful creation in which Hashem has placed us. We stop tromping through the garden, plucking its fruit and tossing out the skins, and we start noticing its beauty and—I’ll say it—holiness. This appreciation in turn can lead to worship; not, God forbid, worship of the creation, but of the creator. The Jewish tradition of hiddur mitzah—making beautiful the commandment—sanctions the use of beautiful objects in our rituals, such as a splendid tallit or Kiddush cup, to deepen our sense of worship. In the same way, as we do our part to uphold and enhance the beauty of the created order, as we make splendid the commandment to tend and guard the creation, we deepen our worship of the creator.