Parashat Shoftim

Wasteful Destruction

Judaism possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded.

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Our Current Ecological Situation

A profound opportunity to apply this principle faces us daily in our homes, schools, and workplaces. In 2006, Americans produced 251.3 million tons of garbage (officially known as Municipal Solid Waste, or MSW), up 66% from 1980, and nearly three times as much as produced in 1960.

Much of this waste has potential life after the garbage can. Paper comprises 34% of MSW, and compostable food waste and yard trimmings over 25%. Even though recycling rates have more than doubled since 1960, only 32.5% of those 251.3 million tons was recycled in 2006. In houses, schools, offices, and restaurants across the country, waste is being dumped rather than set aside for more productive and environmentally conscious processing.

To encourage observance of Bal Tashhit in our communities, we might support recycling programs in our own communities and be more cognizant of our own waste. In this way we can avoid additional environmental harm.

In conclusion, Judaism--exegetically, halakhically, and theologically--possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded. The commandment of Bal Tashhit in this week's Torah portion reminds us of the need for us to reflect upon our responsibilities, and reduce our own waste and its impact on the environment.

Suggested Action Items:

1) Before putting something in the trash can, consider whether it is possible to reuse, recycle, or compost some of what you are throwing away.
2) Shop at second-hand stores and reuse what someone else no longer needs.

3) Encourage the founding of a Pay as You Throw program in your community. These programs, which charge for non-recyclable waste removal above a set limit, have reduced 4.6-8.3 million tons of MSW from landfills annually by encouraging households to compost, recycle, and alter consumption habits rather than pay for extra garbage removal. At present, these programs are only available to 25% of the American population. Additional programs will make a significant difference.

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Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Ph.D., served more than a quarter of a century as President of Yeshiva University and of its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith.