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Second Thoughts on the New Millennium

We entered the new millennium as planned, hosting a shabbat dinner in Jerusalem. We went to synagogue – in black tie – and afterwards had eighteen friends for a more-lavish-than-usual but nevertheless recognizable Friday night dinner. We made kiddush over the wine (champagne, in this case) and the traditional blessing over the bread. We had a great dinner, looked back, looked forwards, played one or two games, sang songs. At midnight we began the traditional bensching, the grace after meals, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, and included a prayer for peace in the future. All in all it was a great evening.

The following morning the house was devastated. We had plates and debris everywhere; streamers and balloons, leftover pudding, candlesticks, washing-up stacked in heaps. We had wine glasses and champagne flutes and little shot glasses from those important impromptu l’chaims. By contrast with how beautiful it had looked when we first returned from synagogue, it indeed seemed like terrorists had wandered in during the night and done their worst.

And as I surveyed the debris, it occurred to me that our Millennium Friday-night dinner provided, unintentionally, a powerful metaphor for how much of the West is entering the new century. We and our guests were not – or would not intend to be – racist or ungenerous or sexist or violent. We were well-educated, mostly liberal or left-wing, well-meaning; representative, in many ways, of the better impulses of the last century.

Our intention was simply to celebrate and we did indeed have a great evening. Yet our way of doing so was tremendously wasteful: salad uneaten and thrown away; glasses full of expensive wines, half-full, tipped down the sink; tomato sauce, unused, thrown away; kosher mince pies hardened overnight; rubbish bags filled up, in due course, with various unreusable detritus.

I don’t think we were terrible, particularly, and I’m sure that, around the world, there were worse examples of waste than our relatively small dinner party. And certainly my guests cannot be held responsible for my own over-catering.

Nevertheless it is precisely because we were in general such well-meaning people that, in retrospect, I was struck by the metaphor. Many of us in the West, and Western societies and governments and religions, and families – do mean to be good and we do, many of us, strive in little ways to make the world a better place. Yet our arrogance, our pre-existing habits and our presumptions of entitlement betray us – they lead us to damage and to wastefulness which, in aggregate, seems to be destroying the planet. It is the aspect of our behavior which I think will seem least defensible another century hence.

In upper New York state a Jewish environmental camp called “Teva” teaches elementary school children a game called “efes p’solet” – hebrew for “zero waste.” They encourage the children to weigh their leftovers at the end of each meal and, by doing so, to help them towards the goal of zero waste, something which, by the end of the week, the kids often come close to achieving

On a different scale, City Harvest – and kosher City Harvest – recycles food in New York City from public functions at which the food would otherwise be wasted, and delivers it instead to those who are in need.

What would our lives be like if we strove towards “efes p’solet” Not to do without things we enjoy, but simply to seek not to waste? To eat well, but to err on the side of taking – or catering – too little rather than too much? To dress well, but to wait until we needed new clothes rather than simply wanted them – or, at the least, committed ourselves to giving away the old to make way for the new? To say no to gift-wrap, to trade the CDs we never play with the ones our friends never play, to increase the velocity of the books on our shelves rather than simply buying more, to give blessings rather than objects when we give gifts?

I write this as a reluctant and somewhat belated environmentalist. I am far from environmental best-practice in my own life, and my over-catering on December 31st was one small sign of that. I agree, too, that on this particular new year’s eve we may have permitted ourselves some license for once-in-a-lifetime celebration. But at some level I now understand that we have grown used to consuming too much and thinking too little; and that “zero tolerance” for violence in schools needs to be self-extended to the goal of zero waste in our lives.

Jewish teaching requires that we strive to be holy, that we seek to improve the world, that we first address our own behavior, and that beginnings are significant and important. So I’m starting with this week’s food shop: how about you?

Nigel Savage, January 2nd, 2000

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