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Parshas Shoftim (5775)

The Torah Goes Green

You know, with all the global warming that’s going on, summers are so much hotter than they used to be. In fact, last summer it was so hot that …

~ Ted Williams' head woke up and asked for some iced tea.
~ I saw a funeral procession pull into a Dairy Queen.
~ Farmers had to feed their hens crushed ice to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs.
~ My cab driver was wearing an oscillating turban.
~ I saw an Amish guy buying an air conditioner.

We can make all the jokes we want about global warming. However, the truth is that global warming and the looming environmental crisis is no joke – and we all know it.

Check out this news item from the Associated Press that I read online yesterday:

Federal officials say July was Earth’s hottest month on record, smashing old marks. July’s average temperature was 61.86 degrees Fahrenheit, beating the previous global mark set in 1998 and 2010 by about one-seventh of a degree. That’s a large margin for weather records. Records go back to 1880, but nine of the 10 hottest months on record have happened since 2005. The first seven months of 2015 are the hottest January-to-July span on record. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist Jake Crouch says it is quite likely that 2015 will end up the hottest year on record, beating last year. Crouch says this reaffirms that the Earth is warming, with a boost this year from an El Nino warming of the Pacific Ocean.

Scary, eh? Well, you may not know this, but the Torah was all over the environmental issue well over 3300 years ago – with a mitzvah that G-d commands us in this week’s Torah Portion, Parshas Shoftim:

“When you shall besiege a city a long time, and wage war to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against fruit trees ... Only the trees which you know are not trees for food, you may destroy and cut them down to build siege machinery against the city waging war with you” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).

With these words, the Torah forbids cutting down trees unnecessarily, thus wasting and destroying G-d’s world. This is generally referred to as the prohibition of “Bal Taschis” (lit. ‘do not destroy’), the act of wasteful consumption of fruit trees.

This law was expanded in later Jewish legal sources to include the prohibition of the wanton destruction of household goods, clothes, buildings, springs, food or the wasteful consumption of anything (see Ramba”m, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8, 10; Samson Raphael Hirsch, Chorev, 279-80). Indeed, one medieval Torah sage, Rabbeinu Yonah, goes so far as to state that included in this Torah prohibition is not to spend one extra penny more than is necessary (see Gates of Repentance 3:82).

The underlying idea of this law is the recognition that everything we own belongs to G-d. When we consume in a wasteful manner, we damage Creation and violate our mandate to use Creation only for our legitimate benefit. [To learn how far the Torah goes to ensure that waste is limited and the environment is protected, click on:]

So we see that way back when – long before it was “fashionable” to talk about greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and recycling – the Torah was concerned with our obligation to protect the environment and with making sure that we use G-d’s beautiful world in the proper way.

“Great, Rabbi!” you say, “you’ve proven to me that G-d began the first environmental movement on earth 3000 years before Greenpeace. But what’s the point? Bottom line is that this planet is going down big time and we need to do something about it now … so who really cares who was the first to come up with the idea?!”

I believe we can find an answer to this question in the rationale that the Sefer HaChinuch (a medieval Torah scholar) gives for the mitzvah of Bal Taschis. In Mitzvah #529, he writes:

“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 rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves.”

The Sefer HaChinuch is telling us that righteous people are those who deeply care about others, rejoice in the good that others have, and seek to improve their spiritual and material welfare. As an outgrowth of their great love of humanity, they make sure that nothing good in this world should be wasted or destroyed. And the purpose of this mitzvah is to cultivate that concern and love for humanity by the Torah commanding us to be environmentally conscious – thus sensitizing us to care more about the good people who live around us.

In other words, the Torah is teaching us that it is simply not enough to be concerned for the future of the environment itself – if it doesn’t come from and lead to a greater concern for the future of those who inhabit that environment – meaning all of humanity.

Now that is a powerful message that I think all of us need to hear – after all, how many of us who are so concerned about the environment are also (at least) equally as concerned about all the unhappiness and depression and miserable relationships, and low self-esteem (not to mention AIDS, starvation, lack of education etc.) of all the broken human beings walking this planet???

The point is that we should be consistent in the causes we choose to champion and support. We need to remember that the ultimate purpose of the planet is for the use of the human beings living on it – and if we are so bothered about the destruction of the earth, we should never lose sight of all the people walking on it who need all kinds of help – be it financial assistance, medical attention, moral support, or spiritual guidance.

Maybe that’s why the Torah, in giving the rationale for the commandment of Bal Taschis mentioned above, adds the words, “Ki ha’adam eitz hasadeh – for man is a tree of the field” (see Deuteronomy 20:19), which the Bible commentator Ibn Ezra explains to mean that man lives from the fruit of the trees in the field.

The Torah is thus reminding us that even as we take pains to preserve the environment by not wasting unnecessarily, we should never become like those over-zealous environmentalists who “can’t see the humans for the trees”. Rather, we should use our environmental consciousness as a way of heightening our concern and love for our fellow humans – thus making the world – all of it, human or otherwise – a truly better place.

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