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Shoftim: Bal Taschit--We Can Do Better

09/07/2022 12:22:44 PM


Rabbi Ezray

Our Bat Mitzvah for today Adina and I were studying the Torah portion, and we came to the verse that I will focus on in a moment teaching that it is a mitzvah to safeguard nature and precious natural resources. 

Adina pointed out how overwhelming the problem seems; it is so difficult to confront the environmental damage we have done and to find meaningful solutions. All our efforts seem so small in the face of ongoing devastation which seem insurmountable. I nodded vigorously. This is an issue I lose sleep over and feel a passion about, especially knowing that our tradition demands better than we are doing. Adina concluded that each of us need to do something in a small way and that those acts ripple. 

As she was saying that, and I was passionately agreeing, I became a little self-conscious. On the table between us was a plastic water bottle. I felt a little embarrassed, especially since in a sermon on Yom Kippur about the environment this past year I shared my personal pledge to reduce plastic waste. I must say the bottle was not mine – really! It was left in my office by someone else. I know that the claim, “It was not my fault!” sounds like just what parents object to when our kids do it. But I said it, nonetheless. And while it really wasn’t mine, maybe I bear some responsibility.

We all need to take this seriously even when we didn’t directly create the problem. I am going to talk about personal commitment and collective action. I am not going to talk about politics or policy. Different people of the highest ethics may disagree on cause, extent and solutions, but I am taking today about my passion and view of Jewish teaching for personal responsibility and the need to act.  

I am inspired by environmental activist Anne Marie Bonneau, who said: “We don't need a few people doing low-waste/sustainable living perfectly, we need millions doing it imperfectly.” We need to be among the millions doing it a little bit better and a piece of that is my standard for what is okay and not okay in my office, my home, and the synagogue. 

Our sacred sources teach us that safeguarding and caring for the environment is a core Jewish value obligating us to act. Look in this week’s Torah portion. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20: “When in your war against a city you shall not destroy its fruit trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you.”

These are important pieces in this verse. The question, “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” implies that nature cannot protect itself from human destruction, so there is a special obligation for us to provide protection.  In essence, we must protect nature, for nature cannot protect itself. Notice that even in wartime, when we might forget about moral issues, let alone ecological ones, we must be careful. Think about the current situation in Ukraine where warfare is creating the potential for a nuclear disaster!

The Hebrew for the words for “Don’t Destroy” are bal tashchit, and the rabbis expand it to prohibit any destruction or waste of precious natural resources. Numerous laws and applications grow from this principle:

We are taught not to waste fuel; thus you don’t tilt an oil lamp to make a bigger flame. It is a bal tashchit. Think about all the ways this applies in modern times: from leaving lights on, to cars we purchase, to appliances we purchase, to carpooling or walking.

We don’t waste water. There are lots of details for that list. I know that we no longer water our lawn and are careful about leaving water on for things like washing dishes and brushing teeth.

We don’t do things which allow food to spoil. 

We don’t pollute. We don’t throw things away that can be recycled. From this concept an entire behavioral ethic emerges, rooted in sacred sources of Jewish law that are hundreds of years old! The ongoing re-interpretation of the principles to match our new realities is the important work we do. There is so much we can do!

All of this gets back to the discussion that Adina and I had. We need to take the obligation to protect the environment personally and each do our own part.  No single one of us is going to solve this on our own, 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.” In this month of Elul, as we approach the New Year, a time of reflection, renewal, and turning, think about an area you will devote yourself to improving as it comes to bal tashchit

          Mimi and I continue to devote ourselves to reducing use of plastic. Most, if not all agree as to the danger and damage of plastic. According to Plastic Oceans International, more than eight million tons of plastics are dumped into the oceans each year. It harms sea life as it breaks down fish eat it, and it harms their health and then makes its way into our food chain. On Yom Kippur I referenced the floating island of trash coined the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” stretching 600,000 square miles in the Pacific, three times the size of the state of Texas, which sadly has grown in ensuing months. And here is the thing about plastic waste, it takes more than 400 years to decompose in our oceans and up to 1,000 years in landfills. Most plastic that is thrown out is not recycled. The Wall Street Journal recently shared (May 2022) an Energy Department study reporting only 5% of plastic waste in the U.S. is recycled. We are turning our world into a plastic dump. Micro-plastics are even showing up in rain.

          We can do better. We can look at those places where we use plastics, be it ziplocks, disposable items, saran wrap, bags for produce, bottled water, spray bottles, and make other choices. Let’s stop using single use plastic items. There are incredible websites devoted to alternatives. We don’t need little plastic bags for each produce item, just put it directly into a reusable bag.

          There is reason for hope. People are joining in. Business is adapting and innovation is extraordinary. I just read an article in the Jerusalem Post about an Israeli company W-Cycle that developed a home-compostable food packaging solution from a new material they invented called SupraPulp. They make the pulp from leftover food and agricultural waste like sugar cane and they create a bio-degradable product that is strong enough to serve the purposes that plastic plays and it is durable, economically viable, and safe. This type of innovation will help us reduce the 36 million tons of plastic used annually, 40% of which is packaging. Solutions are there if we look and act.

          Hope comes from the number of people who have been inspired to act. Each week at our staff meeting, a different staff member shares a drash about the Torah portion. It was my turn this week and I shared about Bal Tashchit and things I have been trying to do and we went around the table and each person shared their activism. It was incredible. Rosa no longer uses plastic soap dispensers but buys bar soap; Cantor Barbara takes water run-off and uses it in the toilet to save water; Rebecca doesn’t eat meat and was excited to buy an electric car; Kate walks to work and is passionate about recycling; Rabbi Ilana always brings her reusable water bottle to our meetings and takes it everywhere; Deb goes so far as to reuse gift-wrap paper, which I must say my mother has been doing for years; Natalya orders in bulk, always uses re-usable bags; and Talia has a particular passion for this. She doesn’t use paper towels or plastic bags and introduced me to stasher bags. She uses concentrated products and puts a rock or water bottle in the tank of the toilet to reduce water usage.

          We try to do this at the synagogue; composting, recycling, LED lights, bulk buying; and our discussion led us to areas where we can to better. Our 6th grade is about to work with Park Champions cleaning up Maddux Park because almost all the litter not picked up ends up in the water. It is part of a Reverse Tashlich where rather than throw something into the water, we are taking trash away that would otherwise go into the water. And our Environmental Activism Committee is re-energizing and will host an event the Sunday of Sukkot where people will share some of the extraordinary actions they have adapted to make a difference. The activism in this community is inspiring and I will utilize the Mobilize app so we can share discussion and gain inspiration about the activism we all do. This collective effort brings hope and will ripple.

          Every act matters. I end with a famous story that bears repeating: There is a little boy standing on the beach and throwing starfish back who got stuck in the beach sand as the tide rolled in back into the ocean one at a time. A man walked by and said to the boy: “There are thousands of starfish up and down this beach. What difference can you possibly make?” The boy responded, “I made a difference to that one.” And maybe as he threw the starfish back into the ocean so they could survive, others joined in. Let’s make a difference, each and every one of us.

Wed, March 22 2023 29 Adar 5783