Parashat Shoftim

The Emergence Of Environmentalism

From the commandment not to cut down trees in war, we derive the prohibition against the careless destruction of nature.

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Because the principle of bal taschit demands that we refrain from engaging in destructive or wasteful actions, many contemporary Jews have understood it to be part of an emerging Jewish environmental consciousness. For example, some contemporary writers have suggested that a commitment to bal taschit in its original context might lead Jews to greater activism to prevent the wasteful exploitation or destruction of wilderness areas. On a more everyday level, bal taschit might serve as a religious language for greater conservation and recycling efforts on the part of Jewish homes and institutions.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century explanation and discussion of each of the 613 commandments, finds an even deeper teaching embedded in the principle of bal taschit:

The purpose of this mitzvah [commandment of bal tashchit] 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. Inculcating a consciousness of our behavior is at the core of Judaism, as the teachings pertaining to sacred time and moral rigour might suggest. Bal taschit asks us to apply that same conscientiousness to the ecological consequences of our everyday actions; perhaps that kind of consciousness is an essential part of "righteousness" for our times.

PS--For those interested in more information on Jewish environmental activism and a more in-depth look at Judaism's perspectives on environmental issues, the best place to start is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.