Infused with messages of the essential importance of the environment, the Torah begins with celebrating diversity (Gen. 1:1 – 2:25). The Shabbat commandment of rest (Ex. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15) is understood by the rabbis (Mishna Shabbat 7:2) to mean not to tamper with the environment one day every week throughout the year.
In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, we come across one of the most important commandments/mitzvot related to the environment.
“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls” (Deut. 20:19-20).
“Do not destroy” is ba’al tashchit in Hebrew, the name of the mitzvah stating that undue destruction of the environment and/or products made from the environment (i.e., everything we use) violates the Torah. That this commandment appears in the context of warfare, when people are often behaving at their worst, highlights even more so that during times of peace, this mitzvah must be followed. Ba’al tashchit is the Jewish basis of the three environmental Rs: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse.
The Jewish basis for environmental care
As the Torah represents our finite human attempt to understand the Infinite, it also reflects the complexities of being human. As we have seen with other Torah verses, the Hebrew is open to interpretation. The verse “Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?” can also be understood as “For the tree of the field is a human life to employ them in the siege.”
The former interpretation, following Rashi, says since trees are not humans, they should not be impacted by us. The other interpretation, following Ibn Ezra, looks at trees as our food source, and that is why they should be saved. Rashi points to an intrinsic understanding of the value of nature, while Ibn Ezra is more anthropocentric in orientation. These two viewpoints led to what Eilon Schwartz, senior faculty at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, calls maximalist and minimalist approaches to the environment.
Commenting on our verses, Schwartz offers this penetrating insight: “Although it is clear that even in those sources which have been attributed to a maximalist position there is a strong sense of a hierarchy in which human needs override other considerations, nevertheless in the maximalist position there are other considerations which need to be weighed against the human.... From its beginning, tension existed with regard to how to understand the prohibition: whether such a prohibition was to define the world in terms of human use, or whether such a prohibition demanded an evaluation of use that took into account more than human wants” (Ari Elon, Naomi Hyman, Arthur Waskow, ed. Trees, Earth, and Torah, pp. 101-102).
This complex approach echoes what we find in the Garden of Eden when humans were told to “have dominion over” the environment (Gen. 1:26), as well as “to cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2:15). These contrasting attitudes reflect the human reality when it comes to the environment – we cannot escape the fact that all of what we do impacts the environment. Our challenge, our responsibility, is to be aware of that footprint and do whatever we can to limit and reduce it.
That commandment, particularly as we read it this summer, the hottest month in recorded history, should be a clarion call to action.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught: “Before the world was created, God alone existed, one and eternal, beyond any boundary, without change or movement, concealed within Godself. When the thought arose in God to bring the world into being, God’s glory became visible. God began to trace the foundations of a world before Godself, and in this way God brought a heaven and earth into being.
“But when God looked at them, they were not pleasing in God’s sight, so God changed them back into emptiness and void. God split and rent and tore them apart with his two arms, and ruined whole worlds in one moment. One after another, God created a thousand worlds, which preceded this one. And all of them were swept away in the wink of an eye.
“God went on creating worlds and destroying worlds until God created this one and declared, ‘This one pleases me, those did not.’ That is how God created the heaven and the earth as we know it, as it is said, ‘For, behold! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth’” (Isa. 65:17).
We usually read these accounts of other worlds being created and destroyed, and God approving our world with a sense of satisfaction and safety. However, Shapira’s stark commentary, based on several earlier sources (see Zohar Hadash, ed. Daniel Matt, Parashat Bereshit, footnote 10), written during the chaos, violence, and death of the Holocaust, can also be understood as a cautionary warning – catastrophes (what the word “Shoah” means) can happen; worlds can be destroyed.
While the world and the Jewish people recreated themselves after World War II, Shapira’s lesson read in the reality of our climate crisis should make us pause at this juncture in human history. We should not be so hubristic to think God would not destroy this world, like God did with others.
THE CLIMATE crisis is about the physical health and well-being of our planet. We correctly relate to this challenge through measurements of substance – the amount of carbon in the air, the temperature of the air, water and soil, the quality of the air, etc. But there is another dimension to this crisis that we miss: The climate crisis is also a spiritual crisis. We have forgotten the inherent holiness of our world; as we treat a house of worship with reverence and care, so should we do the same when it comes to the Earth.
The psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1). Implied within that orientation is that our world is on loan from God. When we are given something on loan, we take special care of it; even more so when it comes to this world, on loan from God.
As with what the people did with the prophets of the Bible, we too refuse to listen to the messages conveyed over and over. Just last week, parts of the Hawaiian tropical island Maui burnt. That came on the heels of Canadian fires sending dangerous smoke to the United States, and a “100-year” flood event in Vermont that happened again after only 12 years.
In the tension of dominion over the environment and its more limited minimalist orientation of ba’al tashchit, or the more cultivating and maximalist use of ba’al tashchit, it is clear that we need to shift the emphasis towards the latter. If not, we will become another world that will only be remembered in a midrash. ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.