August 28th-29th, 1998
7 Elul, 5758
Does anyone remember being scolded by a teacher for not finishing all your food at lunch?
I do. I know that the tongue-lashing I once got included a reference to
abject poverty in some non-Western country: "How can you be so wasteful?
There are starving people in India (or Nigeria)!" Utterly unrepentant, I
recall, I tossed the remains of my grilled cheese and wax beans into the garbage, and
scampered off to recess.
Not exactly the sort of vignette I want included in my spiritual biography.
"Early Life of the Tzaddik."
It's a shame I didn't take the teacher's words more to
heart. I know now I could have profited by developing in childhoold a little more
gratitude for gifts that have been showered upon me my whole life.
But let's be Talmudic for a moment: a possible
implication of the teacher's words is that if there had been no people starving in India
or anywhere else, if everybody in the world had access to an inexhaustible supply of food,
there would have been nothing wrong with chucking the lunch. Perhaps there is no
inherent villainy in wastefulness.
Wrong, cries the Torah! (Sorry, teach.) Have a look in this week's parsha:
"When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not
destroy (lo taschis) its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat,
and you shall not cut it down; is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the
siege before you? Only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy
and cut down, and build a bulwark against the city that makes war with you, until it is
conquered." (20, 19; Artscroll Chumash, p. 1043.)
In the midst of war (duly sanctioned by the Sanhedrin), when subduing the enemy by any
means necessary is presumably our sole concern, the Torah steps in and prohibits us from
destroying fruit-bearing trees in the midst of our siege. Rambam (Maimonidies) rules
that is an absolute prohibition; Ramban (Nachmanidies) disagrees, and maintains that the
Torah is merely establishing an order of priority--i.e., you may cut down fruit trees to
a bulwark, but only after first exhausting the non-fruit bearing trees. Both agree,
however, that wantonly destroying the fruit trees surrounding the city to demoralize and
debase the enemy ("scorched-earth policy") is forbidden. This is one of
the 613 biblical commandments.
Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, a noted contemporary rabbi in Israel, has written in an essay on
Judaism and the environment that this mitzvah is the "first recorded instance of
conservation legislation." (I guess we Jews were the original Greens.)
Now back to my sandwich. The Oral Law teaches that all acts of needless destruction
are included in this prohibition, which is popularly known as bal tashchis--"don't
destroy." In his Sefer Hamitzvos (negative commandment 57), Rambam writes:
"...and so, too, [causing] any damage falls under this prohibition, such as one who
burns his garment for no reason, or breaks a vessel." The Sefer Chareidim, a
famous work on the mitzvos of the Torah by a leading
16th-century Kabbalist, includes under this commandment, "that a person show concern
for his money, and not needlessly waste even a perutah (small coin; penny)."
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch follows in kind: "...[destruction] also means trying to
attain a certain aim by
making use of more things and more valuable things when fewer and less valuable ones would
suffice...(Horeb: p. 280)"
Could it be that not using supermarket coupons, or choosing a brand name over generic when
there's truly no difference in quality, approaches a biblical prohibition? What
about those of us--gulp--who don't bother to recycle? I'm not being
facetious...it's something to think hard about.
According to Hirsch, what's at stake in heeding the commandment of bal tashchis (don't
destroy) is nothing less than the essence of our humanity:
"Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the
word of My teaching [G-d says to us], only then are you a man and have the right over them
which I have given you as a man. However, if you destroy, if you ruin--at that moment you
are not a man...and have no right to the things around you." (Ibid.)
The divine summons to mankind to "subdue the world and have dominion over it (Genesis
I, 28)" presupposes that we do so as wise and compassionate (read: Torah-guided)
The Sefer HaChinuch writes beautifully about the prohibition of bal tashchis, giving us a
glimpse of an aspect of righteousness that is often not publicized or appreciated:
"The root of this mitzvah...is to teach our souls to love what's good and what's
purposeful, and to cling to it. And from that, good will cling to us and we will be
distant from every evil thing and from every needless destruction. And this is the
way of saintly people (chasidim) and men of distinction: they love peace and rejoice in
the good of
mankind, and bring them closer to the Torah, and they don't destroy anything in the world,
even a mustard-seed, and all destruction that they see grieves them..."
Note the mention of humanity in this passage: the love of the natural world which this
mitzvah of bal tashchis helps instill in us, and which is an important achievement in
itself, should go hand in hand with the even more noble trait of loving our fellow man,
and rejoicing in his good. Perhaps some radical environmentalists lose sight of
Ultimately, being wasteful can lead us to deny G-d
altogether. Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, zt'l, a great Torah scholar and colorful
personality who taught for many years in the Philadelphia yeshiva, is quoted precisely to
this effect in a recent profile, as he discusses the importance of showing respect to all
"David HaMelech once treated clothing with
disrespect, and because of this his clothes did not keep him warm in his later years.
His clothes were telling him, 'I'm not yours to be scorned.' I've heard it
said that our purpose in Creation is to respect and appreciate everything in it. If
someone disdains objects, it leads him to look down on people as well. This in turn
leads to loshon hara and eventually even to giving false testimony, which is a denial
of Hashem Himself...Certainly, then, one should never just take the food
Hashem gives us and throw it away." (Reb Mendel, by Yisroel Greenwald, pp.
May Hashem help us all to internalize this lesson: to realize that everything we have been
given is meant to be utilized to help us grow as individuals, to help us serve Him better.
Nothing should be wasted.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director of the Savannah Kollel/ Savannah Torah Education Project. Phone:
fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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