A few days ago I received a really interesting question. I have been asked which blessing a Jew has to say when seeing a garbage truck.
The question may sound theoretical. But only if you have been away over the last two weeks, yet probably the smell of it has reached you anyway. Otherwise, by now you know that the bin workers of our city have been on strike. The strike ended last week, and the trucks have begun to circulate again. Hence the doubt on how to sanctify the renewed sight.
When we got the news that the strike was finally over, I’m sure we all felt great relief. This is precisely the time for the shehecheyanu blessing.Maybe we consider it a miracle the appearance of these trucks after so many days? Great, there is the blessing for miracles. Do we consider unusual the sight of bin workers on our streets? There are also blessings to be recited when you see a person again after a certain time. There is the blessing for good news. You must recite a specific blessing when you see rulers (it could be argued that for a certain period, our city’s government was in the hands of the unions). In short, look at our prayer book, and you will see how many blessings are there available to us.
The garbage workers’ strike has unfortunately brought the name of our city on the front page of many newspapers for reasons we would have liked to avoid. Yet, there are still some positive sides to this story, and I would like to recap.
First of all, let us bless the very fact that a waste collection system exists. We take it for granted, but we should not. Indeed in many parts of the world, there is nothing similar. There are places where the garbage collection system simply does not exist or is ruled by criminal organisations. For example, certain regions of Southern Italy or in the Palestinian territories. In those parts of the world, what we consider a right (and for which we pay taxes) is a reward for collaborating with criminals or terrorists. And the money goes to criminal organisations.
Furthermore, let’s remember that we are lucky enough to live in a democracy, where problems of this kind -between workers and employers- are solved through negotiation. As long as it is as intense as it is and peppered with words which frankly we would prefer not to hear, negotiation is still better than armed confrontation. Say what you want of the Trade Unions. Still, certainly in this country, they do not use weapons neither act work together with the mafia as it happens in other countries in other times of history. If you have seen the film The Irishmen about the political career of Jimmy Hoffa, you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.
Since trade unions are democratic organisations, I hope I will be allowed to make a very modest observation inspired by Jewish law and the halacha. The workers who deal with waste deserve all our respect and consideration. Indeed, with better salaries and working conditions, it’s a pity they had to recur to the strike. Having said that, there are parts of our city where the piling of garbage has posed a severe hazard to the health of elderly people and young children. The sight of uncollected garbage outside nursery schools was simply unbearable. It is not ethically correct to make children pay for negotiations among adults!
Even more revolting was the sight of items that were clearly recyclable and that had been thrown away, taking advantage of the messy situation. We have seen furniture: carpets, sofas, TV sets and even musical instruments towering above the piles of trash. They could have been kept and disposed of at a later time.
I want to be clear about this. Dividing our waste, recycling as much as possible, distinguishing between objects to be thrown away… are all traditional Jewish practices. For example, none of us dumps an unused tallet or a prayer book that we no longer use in the landfill. These objects are buried in a Jewish cemetery, and by the way, in case you do not know, we provide this service to the whole community (by the way, this applies to lulav and etrog too).
We don’t treat all waste equally. There are many norms regarding waste, leftovers of fruit and food coming from the Land of Israel that cannot be thrown away with other kinds of garbage. Distinguishing, recycling and bringing the waste to different destinations is a part of our religious practices. It follows that those who avoid sorting trash and throwing away everything without making distinctions behave in a non-kosher manner, causing the environment the consequences that we all know.
To answer the question mentioned above. Obviously, many different blessings can be recited when we finally see evidence that the disposal and recycling system is working anew. But the sight of waste should make us think about the reasons why we throw away so many things. What is the cause of our frantic and continuous search for something new to replace everything as soon as it seems old or just not new anymore?
I think there is a profound distinction between Jewish culture and the culture of the world around us. We Jews know that there is something called time. We accept that it passes. We celebrate the passing of time, season after season. Instead, contemporary society is built on novelty, the illusion of stopping time, and replacing things when they are no longer new. It is a continuous battle against the passing of time. And it is not Jewish! In fact, it was the practice of the Egyptians to embalm the body of the Pharaohs so that they would never be deteriorated by the passage of time.
I found it deeply disturbing to see so much stuff thrown away. How different is Jewish culture from the consumerist culture we live in! We bless even something apparently trivial like a garbage truck. While this new-obsessed society throws away too many things that can still be a source of happiness and -yes- a blessing for many other people. There is something rotten in our society (pun intended) and we Jews must be able to counter it.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 23 October 2021