By Rabbi Raphael Leban
In 1962, a talented writer and naturalist named Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring. In it she vociferously and eloquently decried the use of poisonous insecticides like DDT that had begun to be used extensively in American agriculture. With the book’s publication, the nation was sharply roused to the dangers and the ills of careless destruction of the natural world. And environmentalism was thus born. The Torah, of course, taught us this principal a few thousand years before her book was published.
In Parshas Shoftim, the Torah instructs us in wartime behavior. When we are laying siege to a city of our enemies, it would be natural for us to tear down the nearest trees to build battering rams. However, the Torah commands us not to tear down fruit-bearing trees. We are instructed to be especially protective of trees whose contribution to our world is particularly important.
Likewise, the Torah commands soldiers to take shovels as standard military equipment. Why? To dig bathroom facilities in the field, to leave even the battleground untainted by unnecessary human impact. Imagine, in a state of war, where every resource at our disposal is commandeered for use in the war effort, even in such a situation the Torah demands strict standards of environmental sensitivity. A few years before the Green Party held their first rally.
However, the Torah’s strictures of environmentalism are tempered by the Creator of the Universe’s goals for His creations. In the prohibition of tearing down fruit-bearing trees, the words “don’t destroy” are used. In this uncharacteristic use of the word ‘destroy’ for cutting down trees, the Torah lays down the fundamental principles of Divine environmental conservation: the prohibition of purposeless destruction.
When there is no useful, meaningful and worthy purpose behind the obliteration of a resource, be it a tree, an animal or even a piece of clothing, we are prohibited from destroying it. On the other hand, if its use is necessary for constructive human purposes, then we are invited to take full advantage of the world that God has created for us—albeit in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Don’t throw away perfectly good food. Don’t mistreat animals. Don’t tear a garment that doesn’t need a hole. But a few hours before the Passover Seder, you can throw away some perfectly good Cheerios. For medical research, you can inject experimental drugs into lab rats. If your child wants to dress up like a pirate, you can tear a towel into an eye patch.
And so, three thousand years later, the Johnny-come-lately modern-day environmentalists have gotten it almost right. Almost. In the First Platform of the Earth Charter Initiative it says, “Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.” The original, the ancient and the spiritual environmentalism is to appreciate that it is precisely because of the worth and relevance to human beings that we must respect every other form of creation that we are privileged to live amongst.
Living Off The Land
By Rabbi Dovid Nussbaum
The Torah commands judges to judge with absolute virtue. If they fulfill this mandate, we will merit living in the Land of Israel. Why is the mitzvah of judging nobly so important that it enables us to remain in the Land of Israel?
Netziv explains that we must examine the verse a little differently. First, the Torah states that when we judge correctly, we will live. Does the Torah mean to imply that if we judge incorrectly then we will die?
Of course that is not the meaning of the verse. Rather, when a judgment is being determined, it is usually a very complex and complicated situation. The judge needs to focus intently upon the case and its various details. After he has spent much time mulling over the claims and has researched the pertinent halachic sources, he comes to a conclusion and issues a final court ruling. The feeling of elation that the judge experiences when he finalizes the case is not one of physical exultation, but rather spiritual elevation that the soul itself is nourished from. That is the life that the Torah refers to when a case is adjudicated properly.
The Torah goes on to say that we will also merit inheriting the land. This is a direct result of the previous statement. The ability to judge properly is more likely in the Land of Israel. Are the atmospheric conditions in Israel more conducive for concentration? It would almost seem so from the Torah!
Although the physical environment of Israel may not augment one’s intellectual acumen, the spiritual nature of Israel does. This doesn’t mean that the average Israeli IQ is higher than elsewhere. Rather, divine assistance in navigating the straits of the Talmud is more accessible in the Land of Israel. Although this may seem incredible, it is true. When one dwells in a realm that is more conducive to the higher realms, the impact is real and quantifiable.
Indeed, it is well known that our Sages would often immerse themselves intensely in Torah study before they had to make crucial decisions. They transported themselves to an elevated sphere of existence in order to purify their minds before coming to a final conclusion.
Perhaps we have experienced such elated feelings ourselves when we’ve been extremely engrossed in davening on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. It is as if we had been transported to another sphere of existence. We are now beginning our ascent to that important time of the year, the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah. The old adage is that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. We have the opportunity to use the month of Elul, traditionally a time for introspection and self-improvement, to prepare ourselves for our own judgment in front of the Heavenly Court. Let us seize this occasion and use our time wisely.
Byte for Shabbos
Rashi explains that even if we only had the merit of the mitzvah of saying Shema, it would be enough for us to be victorious on the battlefield. When the Jewish people recognize that the Almighty is the true source of our success, we will remain victorious in all of our challenges.