ps-119-89

The holiday of Tu b’Sh’vat has come to have increasing environmental and ecological connotations for us, because of its association with trees, fruit, growing, nature, etc. We also live in a time when the natural environment around us is suffering as a result of human disregard and abuse of it.

Some, perhaps many, teachers say that the environmental suffering is a result of our violation of the principle of “Bal Tash’chit” — Don’t needlessly destroy: 

“Whoever destroys anything that could be useful to others breaks the law of ‘Bal Tash’chit’ [‘Don’t destroy’].” [1]

“Bal tash’chit (Hebrew: בל תשחית) (‘Don’t destroy’) is a basic ethical principle in Jewish law…In the Bible [Devarim/Deut. 20:19–20], the command is said in the context of wartime and forbids the cutting down of fruit trees in order to assist in a siege:
‘… Only the trees which you know aren’t food-trees may you destroy and cut down; to build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.’
God is saying that any trees from which food may be obtained in order to give strength indeut-20-19 the battle are not to be cut down, BUT every other type of tree that is strong enough to be used in battle against the enemy YOU SHALL cut down. God is specifying when and what type of trees are and are not to be cut down. He is not promoting the idea that no trees should be cut down. Be careful to read the verses in context so the complete idea is known, be it in the Bible or any area of life.
In early rabbinic law however, the ‘bal tash’chit’ principle is understood to include other forms of senseless damage or waste. For instance, the Babylonian Talmud [1] applies the principle to prevent the wasting of lamp oil, the tearing of clothing, the chopping up of furniture for firewood, or the killing of animals. In all cases, bal tash’chit is invoked only for destruction that is deemed unnecessary. Destruction is explicitly condoned when the cause or need is adequate.
In contemporary Jewish ethics on Judaism and ecology, advocates often point to ‘bal tash’chit’ as an environmental principle.” [2]

“[Based on Devarim/Deut. 20:19-20, the rabbis are reasoning] from a more stringent to a less stringent case (called a ‘kal v’chomehr’ argument)]: If Jews [or anyone else] must not cut down fruit trees in the extreme case of a war of conquest, when destruction is the norm, how much more does this apply to normal life?” [3]

Torah tells us to treat the environment — Creation — with care and respect, because there’s an innate holiness to creation, as the Ramak teaches:

“One‘s mercy should extend over all creations, not to treat them disrespectfully or destroy them. For the Higher Wisdom is spread upon all creations, [including] inanimate matter, plants, live creatures and people. And for this reason, we are warned against treating food Cordovero sfirotdisrespectfully. Along these lines, it is befitting that just as the Higher Wisdom does not disdain any creature, and causes everything, as it is written: ‘You made them all with wisdom (Psalm 104:24),’ so should man‘s mercy be upon all The Creator‘s works… Along these lines, a person should not treat anything disrespectfully, for all were made with wisdom. He should not uproot a plant except where necessary, and he should not cause the death of a living creature except where necessary, in which case he should ensure them an easy death, with a checked [properly sharpened] knife, to be as merciful as possible. This is the general principle: Having compassion on every being, in order not to destroy them is dependent on wisdom. The exception is to elevate them to a higher level – from plant to animal, from animal to human – for that purpose it is permissible to uproot plant life and to kill animal life, to take away [in the short term] in order to benefit [in the long run].” [4]

Divine Creation is ongoing and God remains present — must remain present — at every moment, in everything that is being created:

tree-and-sun

“It’s written, ‘Forever, H’’, Your word stands firm in the heavens.’ [5] The Besht, z”l, explained that the letters of the Ten Utterances [opening verses of Breishith/Genesis] stand firmly forever in all created things in the upper and lower worlds.
The Ari, z”l, said that even in completely inanimate matter, such as stones or earth or water, there is a soul and spiritual life-force…” [6]

That is the reality. It is left for us only to recognize it.

Rav Kook sets an example for us of that recognition; treating even the smallest part of creation with the utmost care and respect:

“Rabbi Shimon said: ‘Every single blade of grass has a corresponding ‘mazal’ [angel]…which hits it and tells it to grow.” [7]rav-kook

“After an early Shabbat Minchah [afternoon prayer], Rav Kook went out, as was his holy custom, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I [Reb Aryeh Levin] went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. Our great master was taken aback; and then he told me gently, ‘Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have an angel above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner, hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song in praise of the Creator’.” [8]

And if we’re to treat growing things with such tenderness, kal v’homer — how should we treat other people?
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[1] Talmud; Seder Nashim; Massechet Kiddushin 32a
I borrowed this reference from another writer. It is inaccurate.
Actually, the source cited refers to a single theoretical instance of someone violating the principle; it is later determined that they did not.
It seems as if someone created this citation in error at one time, and several subsequent writers, including myself, assumed it to be accurate. It was in searching out the Hebrew original that I discovered the error.
An excellent summary of the sources of this principle (Bal Tash’chit) can be found at:
https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/14448/complete.final4.pdf?sequence=1

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bal_tashchit

[3] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1892179/jewish/Judaism-and Environmentalism-Bal-Taschit.htm

[4] Rabbi Mosheh Cordovero (RaMaK); Tamar D’vorah (Palm Tree of Deborah); ch. 3

[5]  Tehillim/Ps. 119:89
The text says “…stands firm in the heavens.” The Besht is teaching that God’s Presence, Life and Reality are expressed in “the earth beneath” no less perfectly than in the heavens.

[6] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady; Tanya, Part Two [Sha’ar Ha-Yichud]; Kehot Publication Society, © 1981; p. 287 English/288 Hebrew

[7] Midrash; Bereishith Rabbah 10:6

[8] Raz, Simchah; A Tzaddik in Our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin; p. 108