Straight Talk Parshat Shoftim: Jewish Environmentalism
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Shoftim(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

Jewish Environmentalism

In this week's portion, specific instructions are given to the Jewish army as to how to fight a war. Among them is one that you won't find in any other army manual, ancient or modern.

The Torah says that if you need materials to create a battering ram, do not use fruit trees; rather use tress that bear no fruit. This law applies even if it would be much more difficult to find the right trees.

The Sages then extrapolate to apply this principle more generally. In Jewish law, it is forbidden to waste a resource if one can find a way of accomplishing the task without any waste. All the more so, it is forbidden to waste a resource for no reason whatsoever. This law is called Bal Tashchit.

Recycling paper in order to protect rainforests is probably a good example of an attitude a Jew should have. Judaism would probably require a person to build a road around, rather than through, a woodland, even if it costs more to do so. Pollution of the environment would clearly be prohibited if there is a cleaner way to do the same thing, albeit at a higher price.

But why? Surely God's resources are infinite? If we destroy the rainforests, He could create them anew. If there is no ozone layer, He could protect us from the sun's rays in a different way. So what's the problem?

My mother often told me (as do most mothers, I believe) to finish my dinner because "there are children starving in Africa." From an early age I recognized this argument as spurious. If there was any conclusion to be made from starving African children, it would be to leave as much of my dinner as possible on the plate so that it could then be sent to feed those who really needed it.

But obviously mothers don't mean this literally - they are trying to point out that if others don't have something, it behooves us to appreciate the fact that we do.

The law of Bal Tashchit has a similar message - God has made us partners in His universe. While God could easily replenish the rainforests that we destroy, He will not do so - because He wants us to take responsibility for our own rainforests. He wants us to treat his world with respect and appreciation - and if we don't, it may well not be there for us. God has appointed us as caretakers of His universe. Only with the knowledge that we risk losing this gorgeous world God has made for us, will we be able to value it, take care of it, and truly enjoy it.

Published: August 16, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Boaz, August 19, 2012 10:50 PM

Buch of Feel Good Nonsense

You might want to know some of the science behind your environmentalism before you "educate" others. The rainforests are not deforested for paper. Today they are used mainly for ethonol, which actually does more harm to the environment than oil. Of course you should not waste resourses but this feel good about myself attitude does tremenous harm to the living standards of all, particularly in the third world. On any question about the distribution and use of resourses you should always ask "what is the cost and am I doing more harm than good". For this a fre market works best. You do not seem to understand that actions have consequences. Your self-righteous diatribe mocks the laws of nature that HaShem created.

(1) Michal Evenari, August 18, 2009 11:59 AM

wunderful article

I enjoyed every word of it and of course agree. (About the "children in Afrika" I heard also, when I was a child. -)

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