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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 3 Apr 2020 06:52 PM and ends Sat 4 Apr 2020 07:50 PM

Weekly Torah Portion Shoftim

ג' אלול ה' אלפים תש"ע

Parshat Shoftim

Preserving our Environment - A Torah Directive

There are many mitzvot, commandments, in the Torah that on the surface seem to apply to a narrow, specific circumstance or situation, but from which the Sages learn very broad applications and implications. One of these, the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees when besieging an enemy city, appears in this Torah portion in context of the laws pertaining to warfare. From what appears to be a very specific law relevant to very rare cases is learnt the general prohibition of destroying anything useful for no reason – bal tashchit.

A few examples of this prohibition include throwing away good clothes, furniture or books, wasting food or water, hunting for sport etc. We are urged to make an effort to give all useful items to others who may need or to charity, rather than deposing of them in the garbage.

The area though where this principle assumes major significance is in the area of the environment and ecology. Unfortunately, many people incorrectly fault the Torah as the source of an attitude that leads to the careless destruction of our world and its resources. They quote the verse in Genesis without understanding its real meaning: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky and every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). According to Jewish tradition this in no way means that man by subduing the earth should destroy the very ecosystem that sustains him, nor does it mean that man should rule over other creatures in a way to cause them unnecessary pain or extinction. It simply means that man should rise above hovering in caves in mortal fear of animals of prey, or adapt a life style that would leave himself at the mercy of the elements of nature.

Man was put into the Garden of Eden “to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15). A famous Midrash has God warning Adam that if he abuses the beautiful world he has been given there will be no one to come after him to fix it. This Midrash teaches us the ultimate in responsibility and the irrevocable danger of destroying for no purpose.

Although the environmental movement is a relatively new development it is incredible to realize how many sources in the Chumash (the five Books of Moses), Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud and Maimonides speak of, and actually codify into law, areas relevant to the environment. These discussions and laws stretching back thousands of years pertain to air, water, toxic material and noise pollution, preservation of animal species, preventing pain to animals, over grazing of land, preservation of trees, allowing land to rest by lying fallow, water preservation, designating open areas around cities and more. As in so many areas of modern life the Torah is a shining light of both practical and philosophical wisdom.

Preserving our environment is a Torah directive that applies to individuals as well as communities, countries and the world community. This is an example of how knowledge of Jewish sources and their application can positively affect a very serious world problem. As in all areas of rectification the work begins with each individual and our willingness to put these concepts into practice. God has truly given us a beautiful world and it is up to us to “work it and to guard it.”

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