AUGUST 24, 2017 – Imagine a city besieged. It is surrounded by soldiers. Projectiles fly toward the city gates. No one is allowed in or out and, as the days and weeks drag on, there is suffering within the city and outside the walls as the armies grow bored, tired and impatient.
The siege may be successful, or the soldiers may decide to move on. But in their anger, the invaders are tempted to cut down all of the fruit trees in fields beneath the city, to burn the crops ripening in their rows, to sow salt in the furrows to diminish the productivity of the land for a generation.
The Torah speaks to the soldiers with this admonition in Deuteronomy 20:19-20: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.”
The Torah adds a rhetorical question, to elicit sympathy for the defenseless: “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” The sages looked to this passage and understood it not only to apply to this one situation, but much more broadly. The rabbis reason in this way: If Scripture instructs us to limit our destructiveness in the moment when human beings are expected to act in the least sensitive manner, then how much the more so must people act with sensitivity under normal circumstances?
In other words, the ancient rabbis warn us to avoid causing harm to nature even in the midst of a battle, so when we are in peacetime, caring for the Earth should be a major consideration in our human activities. The name of the principle is Bal Taschcit: You shall not waste.
The concern for avoiding the unthinking and unnecessary destruction of anything useful is, of course, in our own self-interest. The phrase “Waste not, want not” expresses succinctly the idea that resources are finite, and we should reduce, recycle, reuse as much as we can because, in the long run, it will save us money and this will also assure that future generations have sufficient resources.
There is an additional motivation to be frugal. We should not think of nature as only being there for our exploitation, but we are encouraged to cultivate an emotional connection, to feel empathy with the Earth and other living things.
In the Midrash, we learn that when Adam and Eve were given sway over the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden, the Eternal did not say that they should rule over it, in the sense of being able to take whatever they might desire for their own use. But rather, they were to be the caretakers of God’s creation. From the beginning, human beings were charged with being God’s eyes, hands and hearts in seeing to it that the Earth is preserved for future generations.
If we do not step up to take on the task, there will be no one else. If we fail to prevent global warming, the pollution of the oceans, the loss of farmland, even over-population, we will have failed in the task we have been assigned. We will not only let God down, but also harm ourselves and deprive all our descendants of the blessings of the Earth.
Waste not, want not. We must think about all the gifts we enjoy – our talents and abilities, our material resources whether earned or inherited, our spiritual, sociala and intellectual capital – and take care not to squander, but to value them, to share them, to apply them to sustaining, preserving, and even improving the world we have received. And as Hillel said, “If not now, when?”
Rabbi David Kudan is the spiritual leader of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.