Last Sukkos my family was on our way to visit relatives when we heard an ominous thudding from underneath the car.
After we pulled over on the side of the highway, our fears were confirmed: the back tire was flattened into the asphalt like a half-melted scoop of ice-cream.
As my husband struggled to loosen the nuts to change it, I took our kids out of the car and away from the dangerous whoosh of cars speeding down the road. For the next half an hour, many drivers slowed at the sight of us. A few of them offered my husband a hand, but most of them seemed more fascinated by my activities.
With my kids, I was collecting trash from the side of the highway. There was so many empty soft drink cans and chip packets that without much effort we filled three bags. We could easily have filled three entire skips with all the garbage snagged among the dry grass and boulders.
When the spare tire was securely on, I put the bags in the trunk for disposal in the first trash can we saw.
As I drove away, I wondered to myself:
How did I, a successful entrepreneur and suburban mother, become the kind of person who picks up other people’s filthy trash?
Angels of Litter
There is a well-known tradition that when a Jew leaves the synagogue after the Shabbat prayers on Friday night, angels accompany him home. According to Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad, AKA the Ben Ish Hai, these angels continue to accompany you on all your excursions throughout the week.
The Ben Ish Hai clarifies that the angels will not keep company with someone who doesn’t care about keeping public spaces clean and who litters the streets. He writes this in the context of the Torah commandment to dispose of waste outside the camp. The Ben Ish Hai, a 19th Century rabbi who remains one of the most influential modern Torah authorities, goes on to say that the angels not only refuse to accompany a litterbug but they curse him.
(source: Ben Ish Hai, Parashat Ki Tetze, halakha 14.)
Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein of Bnei Barak, one of the most famous and respected Torah authorities currently active, quotes this statement of the Ben Ish Hai and puts it in the context of life today.
“Keeping public spaces clean is the yardstick by which we can measure a person’s level of ‘bein adam l’chavero‘ [mitzvas related to showing consideration for your fellow man]. Only this way can we determine how fully he has internalized the famous statement of our Sages: ‘don’t do to others what you hate for yourself.’ Moreover, taking care of public spaces as you would your own home, elevates a person spiritually.”
(source: Aleinu LeShabeach, Parashat VaYigash)
It’s good that the Torah sources are clear on the evils of littering, but the sad fact is that litter is a massive problem in Israel today. Many people who visit from around the world are shocked at the amount of trash they see blowing around town and blighting our beauty spots.
As we go into Tu BiShvat, a Jewish holiday that has come to represent a day of environmental awareness for many Jews today, it’s time to come clean on this dirty problem. For once, let’s address it without finger-pointing or sighs of despair about “people who have no consideration for others.”
Instead, let’s ask what we need to do to clean up Israel.
We Declare War on Litter
Littering is a major embarassment in all sectors of Israeli society – religious, non-religious, non-Jewish, and Charedi communities too.
The Charedi community concerns me most personally, because that’s where I live. I am an active member of Leshomra, the nonprofit that’s spearheading a major positive shift in the Charedi community’s environmental responsibility and relationship with nature. When I represent Leshomra and talk to the world about our mission of helping Charedi kids build a greener, cleaner Israel, the first response I hear is always:
I hope you’re doing something about the litter problem!
As a nature lover and Land-of-Israel-lover, I feel their pain.
Thankfully, I have good news for all of us who have ever been bothered by Israel’s trash problem. Leshomra has declared war on litter.
What’s our weapon?
The only one that works, of course.
The litter problem in Israel usually comes not from “lack of consideration for others” but lack of knowledge that littering demonstrates lack of consideration for others. Many Israelis just don’t realize that when they leave their garbage in the park or on the beach or in the street, it upsets other people and the environment.
After all, no person was born knowing that littering is bad. Not even me, the world’s only shaitel-wearing street-sweeper. I clearly remember absorbing this message in from my parents, teachers, and the media in Australia, where I grew up.
So clearly the answer is education. This solution is not as easy as finger-pointing, but it’s certainly more effective. Leshomra is taking up challenge, and with G-d’s help we are seeing amazing success.
From the very first day of our Torah-based green education programs now running in close to 80 Charedi classrooms around Israel, Leshomra teaches what is littering and why it’s so bad for all of us. With solid Torah sources forming the basis of our message, our audience of children, teachers and families is extremely receptive.
With younger kids, we don’t use intimidating quotes about angels’ curses, but we teach the Ben Ish Hai’s message though hands-on, engaging methods.
For example, we tell them the story of “The Wanderings of a Plastic Bag,” about what happens to that Bamba packet after a kid carelessly tosses it out of the bus window. (It ends up annoying quite a few people before blowing out to the ocean, where it suffocates a sea turtle.)
We show them pictures of Charedi kids just like them doing the wrong thing and then doing the right thing with different kinds of litter.
We do crafts and activities that drive home the message that all garbage must be responsibly disposed of in the trash can, even if that is less convenient than tossing it over your shoulder.
This Tu BiShvat, we call on all sectors of Israeli society to implement similar anti-litter programs.
Let’s educate people and communities to clean up our beautiful land and enjoy the company of angels wherever we go.