Last week we discussed the very special recycle bins meant for paper, here in Jerusalem. One of the advantages of recycling, is that we have to consider what it is that we are getting rid of. In the past, people just threw out the garbage without much of a thought to what was being disposed of, but now, in many countries in the west, people are learning to make compost from organic waste, and to separate glass, metallic items, plastic, paper, and even old batteries which can be reprocessed without poisoning the environment.
For us, paper has a special significance, because it often bears the written word. But in our culture, there is another item that is disposed of, that gets very special attention. This is our custom; when an old religious item, a book or a scroll, or a ritual item is too worn out to be of service anymore, we put them in a special repository, or bury them in a grave. Scraps of parchment that were once part of a holy scroll are also included. Such articles are not recycled. They are considered holy. And so they are laid to rest just as the body of a human being is laid to rest after death. In some places they are kept above ground in a repository for old religious items, which we call a geniza. There have been such repositories discovered after hundreds of years, some after more than a thousand years. When I was a boy, such repositories were found in synagogues, but since recycling has come into fashion, one can now find such collection bins placed on the city streets, and people can leave their holy pages there. They too have been painted, but the illustrations hint at our long past.
Young children are taught from an early age to give special respect to holy books. People kiss them when closing them after study, and if a book has been dropped on the floor by accident, it is common to see the person picking up the book, kissing it. And as in the case of sorting our disposable items, the sorting and classification of our possessions, tools and belonging, and even the days of the week, our actions and intentions, are the foundation of establishing a value system. For us, the very symbol of marking a difference, is the Sabbath day. For this is a day which we sanctify with a blessing, and then it is holy for us, and different from all the days of the week.
In the book pictured above, not only is the commentary printed in a different size from the text, but using a different alphabet as well, so as to differentiate between different levels of importance. This is in fact what gives us a sense of what is holy. It is set apart from the banal. Even in our wedding ceremony, the groom says to the bride, “with this act, I have made you holy to me”. If all things are equal, it is hard for children, and hard for people altogether, to grasp the concept of sanctity. And so, recycling can be a first step to appreciating holiness in life.
We are living in a time of great changes. And I think it important that we remember that culture is built layer upon layer… all of knowledge is built that way. It was the written word that allowed for a more effective continuation of human accomplishment, generation building on the foundations of previous generations. It was Isaac Newton who said that he was standing on the shoulders of those who stood before him. Is it at all possible that within one lifetime, we would be able to develop language to the level that we use it today, or all the technological tools that have offered us new freedoms? And what would happen to the world as we know it, if the young generation were only to eat the fruits of the trees they found standing when they arrived, and would no longer work under the hot sun to plant and culture new fields and orchards?
My best wishes to all my readers for a healthy and happy new year. May you enjoy a good livelihood and keep on learning always.