Just One Word: Plastics and the Jewish Master Story

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 23, 2018 / 7 Nisan 5778

NO MISHNA BERURAH CLASS until Sunday, April 8TH.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak explains what a master story is, why Passover is the Jewish master story, and offers two contemporary concerns that we can link to our Passover celebrations this year. 

Just One Word: Plastics and the Jewish Master Story

Passover has long been called the Jewish Master Story. Other names for this type of story are a master narrative or a meta-narrative. In short, when a single story can robustly define and explain a people’s history, hopes, dreams and defeats, we can think of it as a master story. Master stories resonate with every member of a society or an audience precisely because they give expression to that person’s deeply held values.

As Americans, we are well familiar with our country’s master narratives about freedom. Our story was never uttered with greater clarity than in the immortal words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

In those two sentences, President Lincoln expressed our deepest commitments. He also captured the fact that the work of a master story is never finished. We keep telling our stories because they continue to speak to us of what we might yet achieve and of the challenges still ahead. Freedom is less a destination than it is a dynamic, on-going process.

As Jews, we ought to get all of this. After all, our Passover story shares with America a focus on political freedom. We end the seder each year with the refrain, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Historically, that was a statement of our cherished hope to return to our ancestral homeland, and to do so with the rights of self-determination. When we had our land, Pesach was a holiday of Thanksgiving. After the exile, it gave expression to our prayer for a better future.

Still, Pesach is about more than political or economic freedom. First, it is concerned in part with the notion of redemption, namely, how God intervened in history to gain us our freedom. It is a purpose-driven freedom, by which we come to dedicate our lives to mitzvot and to represent God’s light to the nations.

Second, there is another dimension to Pesach which moves our master narrative in startlingly new ways. That, of course, is the mitzvah to eliminate all chametz for the week of Passover. While we know that this concretely refers to leavened food made from five grains and their byproducts (barley, wheat, oats, spelt and rye), chametz early on became associated with human haughtiness and the effort to eradicate haughtiness from our lives.

Chametz, in other words, introduces the notion that the quest for freedom is not only political, but also psychological and spiritual. In that ongoing dynamic process to create greater freedom for ourselves and our society, we must operate in multiple spheres. Given that, there are two concepts that track the political and the personal and which you might want to discuss at your Passover seders (s’darim) this year. One is our use of plastics, the other is the rising tide of anti-semtism. I will talk about plastics this week, and will dedicate my final communication before the festival next week to anti-semitism.

Plastics and Human Haughtiness

We often associate haughtiness with the distasteful manner in which some people make clear that they are better than us. Yet one’s actions can be haughty even without the “attitude.” In this way, haughtiness occurs when we live our lives in such a way that we encroach excessively on others. That’s why the midrash speaks of our internal chametz as a state of being “puffed up.” We impose ourselves on to others.

In today’s world, that abstraction is made quite tangible in the form of plastics. Each year, our species dumps millions of tons of plastics into the ocean each year while hundreds of million more tons end up in our landfills. We turn to plastics because they make our personal lives easier and more convenient.

Most of the plastics we use are temporary containers to move things from one place to another and are quickly discarded after. Think of plastic wrappers, produce bags, and those infuriating hard and dangerous plastic shells you need to cut open to reach a new set of scissors, toothbrush or what-have-you. Our desire for convenience endangers countless species.

I learned through congregants Josh Lake and Tamar Wyte-Lake that the Anglican Church has urged its members to give up plastics for Lent. The Church created a month-long calendar, here, on what sort of plastics to forego on a given day. Viewing it as a modern-day form of chametz, Josh and Tamar intend to forgo all plastic during Passover this year and wrote a letter about this. Merely hearing of their initiative has re-sensitized me to how plastic is everywhere, how hard it is to avoid and why recycling is not enough of an answer.

It also reminded me of the chatat, the sin offering our ancestors used to bring before God and the people. The chatat was brought for our inadvertent failures, those actions we all engage in without quite realizing we are doing the wrong thing. Sins of omission are unavoidable. Once we become aware of them, they are also correctable. Part of our psychological freedom is increasing awareness of our behavior–the popular phrase today is “being woke.”

As we gather and celebrate Passover with family or friends, perhaps you’ll spend part of the seder evening discussing what internal chametz you want to address this year.

Chag Kasher Sameach–A Joyous Festival of Freedom to You,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What is your personal “master story?” How did it become central to you? Where has it guided you in your life?
  2. Do you have a Jewish master story? One that is tied to your Jewish identity? If so, where does it play a role in your life?
  3. Before Passover, spend a day noticing all of the plastic you use by happenstance. What might you do to reduce this “accidental” plastic you encounter.
  4. Even the most humble person suffers from some sort of internal What is yours? How might you counteract it during the week of Pesach?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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