Drash on Parashat Shoftim
Rabbi Gary J Robuck
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, New South Wales, Australia
This week’s sedra (Torah portion) is one of the Torah’s richest and most engaging. In just a few chapters, the Torah takes up matters concerned with the judiciary, the responsibilities devolving upon the Israelite king, his priests and prophets and, in addition, laws of warfare. In chapter 19, we are introduced to the mitzvah known as ha’sagat g’vul (the prohibition against seizing land belonging to another, perhaps weaker, neighbour). In just this one remarkable portion, judges are reminded not to take bribes, generals told to pursue peace, and all are told, in no uncertain terms, to seek justice.
And there is one other thing - something just as relevant today as it was in the ancient world: “When you lay siege to a city for many days to capture it by making war against it, you shall not destroy its trees … you are permitted to eat of it but not [to] cut it down…” (Deuteronomy 2019). We infer from this that we must not destroy wantonly, waste senselessly, damage carelessly - it is not the Jewish way.
A 13th-century work, Sefer Ha’chinuch (a book intended to explain each of the 613 mitzvahs) goes even further: “The purpose of this mitzvah [ba'al 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 (Sefer HaChinuch 529).
This ancient principle - ba’al tashchit - still has plenty of steam left in it. It is motivation for many today who take leading positions on environmental issues. It is why many within our community work to protect wildlife areas and defend rainforests that are under threat from development, or the target of mining and oil companies eager to dig up what may lie beneath. It is the reason why many have been so enthusiastic about joining with international efforts to conserve resources, save water, turn off the lights, recycle our garbage and to generate renewable energy. B’al tashchit is the catalyst for those who campaign for the elimination of plastic carry bags and wish to stop the proliferation of junk mail that ends up in our post box and, only seconds later, in our recycling bin.
Our Union for Progressive Judaism is proud of Melbourne Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black, who has become a leading voice for the responsible use of the environment. Together with members of the Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism, he founded in 2003 the Jewish Ecological Coalition Inc (JECO), a not-for-profit organisation that “seeks to raise awareness about environmental issues, to actively promote ecological sustainability, and to deepen Jewish commitment to the environment”.
Its web page www.JECO.org.au identifies the organisation’s three key objectives:
*To encourage individuals to "tread lightly on the earth".
*To build bridges of mutual cooperation within the Jewish community and between the Jewish and wider communities by working together for ecological sustainability.
*To leave the environment in a better state for future generations.
Is that not the point precisely: to leave the environment in a better state for future generations? Ever since we were given a world that God described as tov m’od (very good) - ever since we were made its guardians and protectors, we have been charged with this most serious responsibility. Today, with the stakes higher than ever before, we must be exceptionally conscious of those consequences that result from our misuse of the planet’s resources - not just when it suits, us or when it may be convenient, but at all times. And, as religious Jews, we should regard ba’al taschit with as much gravity as kashrut or any number of other mitzvahs.
And if observing the mitzvah of ba’al taschit out of respect for the environment is not compelling enough, let me close by repeating the teaching from Sefer Ha’chinuch: “The purpose of this mitzvah [ba'al 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…”
So may it be.