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Environmental Responsibility: A Sermon based on Bal Tashchit from Parashat Shoftim

Our parashah today discusses many topics of justice, of jurisprudence and of social ethics. Today I would like to expand upon a topic that is only mentioned briefly but which holds considerable weight. Before I do so, I need to take you back to last week. Do you remember in my drash from last week the law about having to kill all life and completely obliterate a city that is proven to be idolatrous? What I didn’t mention then is that there are some laws we’ve derived from Torah that are interpreted extremely narrowly, or even not enforced at all but rather treated as educational. The destruction of all living things in an idolatrous city is one of those laws. Our sages determined that “there never was and never will” be a case in which the law was applied. In the case of the condemned city, Rabbi Eliezer said that if one mezuzah was found within the city then the law could not be enforced. What he was saying was that the city could no longer be considered communally responsible for its idolatry and the residents would then need to be judged individually. This can be seen in the case of Sodom when Abraham argued that if there were only ten innocent people, the destruction of the city would be unjust. The law of the condemned city seems to conflict with the principle of individual justice.

Our sages sought to make their halakhic rulings consistent with the overall ethics of biblical teaching. When a law seems to conflict with the basic principles of Torah, they interpret that law restrictively. Thus our sages explain the existence of the law of the condemned city as a way to teach us that idolatry, once accepted in public, is contagious, as we see from the history of Israel’s kings.

In the opposite direction, some laws were held by our sages as far more important than they seem in the text. For example, in our parashah today, it says,

“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.” (Deu 20:19-20)

This whole section of the parashah deals with rules for warfare, setting limits on what the Israelites could do and not do in battle. In these particular verses, “scorch and burn” warfare is prohibited; the Israelite army may not destroy the source of sustenance of the enemy city, even if they are seeking to conquer it. That is the “Pshat”; the straight forward interpretation of the verses. However, our sages took the principle of “bal tashchit” … “do not destroy,” and widened its impact. They treat it as a general prohibition against the destruction or wasting of anything potentially useful or necessary to sustain life… like the fruit trees.

Maimonides stated it this way, “Not only does this apply to trees, but also whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, destroys a building, blocks a well or destructively wastes food transgresses the command of bal tashchit – do not destroy.” This law exemplifies a basic principle of Torah and so it is understood broadly.

Rav Zutra said in the Babylonian Talmud, “Whoever covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp [causing them to burn fuel inefficiently] transgresses the law of bal tashchit.”

In modern times, one could compare this to someone purchasing a less fuel-efficient furnace for example, or perhaps to someone purchasing a Ford Expedition, a Suburban, or a Hummer for their singular commute to work.

In a 13th century explanation and discussion of each of the 613 commandments, an even deeper teaching is provided for the principle of bal tashchit:

“The purpose of this mitzvah is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves.” (Sefer HaChinuch, #529)

According to this interpretation, acting to safeguard the beauty and abundance of the world is a measure of our appreciation of it. We talk about praying with Kavanah (intention) and we talk about Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and we talk about loving our neighbor as ourselves. Well, bal tashchit asks us to apply that same intention, that same spirit, and that same love to the ecological consequences of our everyday actions.

Because there are ecological consequences to our everyday actions.

There is a midrash from the 8th century that says, “G-d led Adam around all the trees of the Garden of Eden. And G-d said to Adam: ‘See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are?! And all that I have created, I made for you. [But,] be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world – for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it.”

The Torah, Talmud, and our rabbinic sages are concerned with what nowadays we would call, “sustainability.” Biblical Judaism is deeply connected to the land but we’ve spent so many years in diaspora and living in cities that we’ve become detached, not seeing ourselves as integral parts of nature. Well, it doesn’t matter if you are politically on the right or on the left. Man was placed in the Garden of Eden, “to till it and keep it.” The two hebrew words here are significant. “Le’ovdah” literally mean to serve it. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “Man is not just a master but also a servant of nature.” The second, “le’shomrah” means to guard it. Man’s dominion over nature is thus limited by his requirements to serve and protect.

So, it doesn’t matter if you accept the climate change proponents declarations or not. If we honestly look around -- we could be, we should be, and we must be better caretakers of our earth. It is as much our calling as it is to love our neighbors. In fact, by seeking G-d in our everyday actions, they are one and the same. Making responsible decisions about the environment and our impact on it not only effects us, it effects our neighbors and the generations to come.

Samson Raphael Hirsch in the nineteenth century gave another forceful interpretation of the biblical law of bal tashchit. The statutes relating to environmental protection, he said, represent the principle that ‘the same regard which you show to man you must also demonstrate to every lower creature, to the earth which bears and sustains all, and to the world of plants and animals.’ They are a kind of social justice applied to the natural world: ‘They,’ the statutes relating to environmental protection,‘they ask you to regard all living things as God’s property. Destroy none; abuse none; waste nothing; employ all things wisely … Look upon all creatures as servants in the household of creation.’

Interestingly, in researching this topic I came across a phenomenal organization called the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. In addition to the enormous resources on their website and the many programs and projects they are affiliated with, they have also posted a 47 page document titled, “The COEJL Guide to Jewish-Catholic Dialogue and the Environment.” It’s a Jewish response to the Pope’s May release of his encyclical “Laudato si'” on the environment and humanity’s responsibility of caring for the earth. My point in bringing this up is that our brothers in Yeshua are not exempt from this responsibility. It is a human responsibility and everyone of us could do more. The Pope has asked his flock to step up. As Jews and lovers of Yeshua, we should do no less.

Let me end with this. As we walk through the month of Elul and our preparation for the High Holy Days, remember that Rosh Hashanah is not just the Jewish New Year and not just a time for Teshuvah, but it is also considered the birthday of the world. Let us prepare for that birthday by reexamining our environmental kavanah. Let us prepare for that birthday by remembering that Tikkun Olam can go beyond repair of things of this world to repair of the world itself. And let us prepare for the birthday of creation by loving our neighbors, in tending their gardens and working together, B’Shem Yeshua HaMashiach, in the name of Jesus the Messiah, to change the legacy of humanity on this earth for the better.

This is our heritage. This is our charge. May we prove worthy.

Shabbat Shalom.

Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life

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