By Rabbi Greg Alexander

There are times that you can open the Torah and it seems to speak to the moment with ease. 

“Love your neighbour as yourself”. “Honour your parents.” “Don’t take vengeance or bear grudges”. These could be written yesterday and their currency is undebatable. And then, there are those commandments that just seem to have failed the passage of time. Take this one, for example:

“When you shall besiege a city for a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human to withdraw from you into the besieged city?” (Dt. 20:19)

OK, so I don’t know about you, but I’m not planning on besieging any cities in the near future. And of course trees aren’t human! Did I need the Torah to tell me that? Is this the case of a 3500 year-old commandment that we can forget and move on? Well, not according to a whole lot of famous rabbis, including the greatest legal mind in Jewish history. 

Maimonides (1138 — 1204) wrote “And not only trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothing, wrecks that which is built up, stops fountains, or wastes food in a destructive manner, transgresses the commandment of not wasting (bal tashchit).” (Sefer HaMitzvot 6)

Bal tashchit is the mitzvah to not destroy anything wastefully, and Maimonides didn’t just make it up. He based his legal code on the Talmud, which contains a host of conversations about rabbis not treating ‘stuff’ casually and thinking before destroying. Take the example of Talmudic eco-warrior  Rav Chisda (Bava Kama 91b). Whenever he had to walk between thorns and thistles, he would lift up his garment and rip his skin rather than his clothing, since nature would cure his skin but not his clothes.

What would Rav Chisda think about our consumer culture today? Clothes, packaging, even electronics. We don’t buy things to last decades or even years. Most of whatever isn’t recycled or dumped into the ocean is sent to landfills, where it will leak chemicals into the earth.

In fact, there were other rabbis at the same time as Maimonides who took things even further than vessels or clothing, suggesting that the mitzvah of bal tashchit extends even to the destruction of a ‘grain of mustard’ in order to ‘love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it.’ (Sefer HaChinuch)

Waste nothing — zero. So for thousands of years, Jewish sages and texts have been glaring at us as we wasted, and shook their heads as we binned. And we still do this. All. The. Time. Waste so much that we just don’t need to. Buy things we know will be used once and then tossed. Wrap things in plastic that will end up in landfill or down the throat of a bird or wild animal.

And we chop down trees. Lots of trees. A scary number — every second a chunk of forest the size of a rugby field is cut down. Every second. In just 40 years, a forest area the size of Europe has gone. Half of the world’s rainforest has been destroyed in just one century. If we don’t act and the current rates of deforestation continue, the world’s rainforests will be gone in 100 years. We are living at a time that severe storms, heat waves and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets are accelerating.

If you thought that eco-Judaism was some new hippy thing, well take note — it’s got a long history. And we need this now more than ever. While we watched the Coronavirus statistics, we took our eye off the climate change stats. And they demand action. Now. Our environment is being destroyed in front of our eyes, on our watch, and we don’t need Swedish teenagers to tell us that — it’s obvious to everyone. 

Make a change, act now. Consume less, waste less, enjoy life more. Let’s do this together and save our planet. It’s a mitzvah.

Temple Israel

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