Shoftim – Bal Tashchit by Rabbi Eli Freedman

Rabbi Eli Freedman’s sermon from Friday, September 6

Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof– Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue. This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, literally meaning “judges” is filled with talk of justice.

Justice in our judicial system. We read in our Torah, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” We are also taught that at least two witnesses are needed to convict someone – one witness is not enough.

Justice for our rulers. Kings are commanded to always have the Torah by their side as they rule as a constant moral reminder. They are commanded not to amass wealth and there is even an emoluments clause in this week’s portion!

Justice for those accused of manslaughter. The Israelites are commanded to create sanctuary cities where someone accused of accidental murder can flee to escape potential revenge

Justice in warfare. Understanding that war was a reality, the people are commanded to act ethically when engaging in combat with an enemy.

And lastly, we find in this week’s portion environmental justice:

When you besiege a city a long time, you shall not destroy the fruit trees thereof by wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a person that it can run from you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you until it falls. (Deut. 20:19-20)

These verses, which command us not to cut down fruit trees while besieging a city, are the basis for a rabbinic statute called, bal tashchit– the prohibition against waste and unnecessary destruction. The rabbis expanded the ruling from not unnecessarily destroying fruit trees to so much more.

The 12th century sage, Rambam writes, “Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit.”

Rambam also gives specific examples like not burying a person in expensive clothing or wasting oil in lamps on shabbat. My personal favorite is the ruling that one should not drink wine when beer is available. The reasoning behind this commandment stems from the fact that beer requires much less resources (labor, water, land, time) than wine to produce.

Bal tashchitis also at the heart of our environmental crisis today; the fires raging in the Amazon, more frequent and intense hurricanes, and polluted drinking water. All of these catastrophes are the product of humans failing to follow the commandment of bal tashchit, unnecessarily wasting our natural resources.

No single one of us is going to solve our climate crisis but we can all make a difference. As it says in Pirkei Avot (and on my tallit), “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena– It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

By following some of the same basic laws of bal tashchit that our ancient rabbis laid out, we can each do our part to combat global climate change. In this month of Elul, as we approach the New Year, a time of reflection, renewal, turning, I encourage all of us to try to become better at bal tashchit. A few ideas:

  1. Eat less meat (especially red meat)
  2. Don’t waste food
  3. Consider getting solar panels on your home
  4. Buy less stuff
  5. Bike/carpool/take public transportation

The congregation has also initiated some work in this area. Beginning with an internal audit of our own waste and environmental impact, we hope to embody the values of bal tashchitin all aspects of our building and community.

This week’s Torah portion,Shoftim,and much of the book of Deuteronomy speak about justice. Often, justice is written about in conditional terms. If you follow the commandments, then good things will happen to you and if you don’t, well… good luck!

This conditional theology has always been difficult for me and I imagine many of you, as all too often we see the righteous suffer while the wicked are rewarded. But, if we read the conditional justice of Deuteronomy in communal terms, the theology becomes less problematic. If we as a society continue to overuse our natural resources, pollute our planet, and show no regard for future generations, then we, the human race, will suffer.

However, if we follow the commandments of bal tashchit, if we each find small ways to reduce our waste, consumption, and carbon footprint, we have the collective power to bring true justice to our planet and all of creation.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon. May This Be God’s Will

Shabbat Shalom.