“The Torah – the First Environmentalist Treatise”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s Torah portion, parashat Shoftim, we find many interesting and challenging ideas. It is a particularly exciting portion because many of the ideas are clearly revolutionary even today, let alone when they were first pronounced over 3,000 years ago!

As I have often noted, one of the primary arguments supporting the idea of the supernatural origin of the Torah is the abundance of revolutionary ideas introduced by the Torah to humankind. Of course, one could argue, as many do, that the Torah was not Divinely revealed some 3,300 years ago, but rather that a group of brilliant Jewish scholars introduced these revolutionary ideas. A problem facing the argument for secular origins of the Bible is that it maintains that at a time when the rest of the world was basically barbaric, Jewish scholars of great stature somehow conceived of extraordinary and exalted notions such as the sanctity of human life, thou shall not murder, the sanctity of property, love thy neighbor, honesty and equity in judgment, and the idea of Shabbat. How is it that only the Jewish people produced such ideas, while the rest of the world remained virtually oblivious to any moral and ethical concepts? The alternative, of course, is to conclude that a Supernatural Being revealed these concepts to humankind through the Torah and through the Jewish people. I would argue, in fact, that it takes more faith to believe that only the Jewish people were fortunate to have such profound scholars able to propound these brilliant and revolutionary concepts, than to believe that these ideas were Divinely revealed.

A wonderful example of the Torah’s exalted concepts appears in this week’s parasha, in Deuteronomy 20:19-20, in which the Torah provides the Jewish people with explicit instructions on how Jewish soldiers must conduct themselves in times of battle. “Kee tah’tzur al eir yah’mim rah’bim, l’hee’lah’chaym ah’leh’hah l’taf’sah,” When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, “Lo tash’cheet et ay’tzah,” You shall not destroy the trees of the city.

We learn from this verse and related verses that Jewish law insists that a Jewish army must always sue for peace before they attack any enemy, and provide the enemy with a period of at least three days to accept peace. Similarly, Jewish armies are not permitted to entirely besiege a city. An avenue of escape–at least one side of the city, must be left open. We also learn from these verses that in order to protect the environment, Jewish soldiers are not permitted to cut down fruit-bearing trees, even in times of war–even when Jewish lives are at stake! From the law regarding fruit-bearing trees, an entire series of laws are derived known as Ba’al Tash’chit, which strictly prohibit wanton and wasteful behavior.

Environmental concern is not an afterthought in Judaism. It assumes a prominent place, articulated already in the opening chapters of the Torah. In Genesis 2:15, G-d gives the human beings special instructions as they are placed in the Garden of Eden. “Va’yee’kach Hashem Elokim et ha’adam, va’yah’nee’chay’hu v’Gan Ayden, l’ovdah u’l’sham’rah,” and the Lord G-d took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to protect it. Although it is hardly acknowledged by the secular world, it is evident that we Jews were the first so-called “green” community, the first to develop a consciousness for conservation and protecting the environment, in effect the first members of the Sierra Club. In fact, in next week’s parasha, Deuteronomy 23:13-15, we learn specifically, “V’yad tee’yeh l’chah mee’chutz lah’mah’chah’neh, v’yah’tzah’tah shah’mah chutz. V’yah’ted tee’yeh l’chah al ah’zay’neh’chah,” Jewish military camps must have a designated place outside the camp where soldiers take care of their bodily needs. There must also be a shovel included among the soldiers’ equipment so they may properly dispose of the human bodily wastes. The verse tellingly concludes, “V’hay’yah mah’chah’neh’cha kadosh,” so that your camp be holy and sanctified.

In addition to the above laws, the Torah further promotes the idea of conservation by introducing the radical concept of shmita, that once every seven years the land must lay fallow in order to regenerate itself. The people, as well, are not permitted to work the land during that Sabbatical year, so that they too may regenerate.

Many years ago, on a visit to the Epcot Center in Disneyland, I was deeply impressed by an exhibit sponsored by the Kraft Food company entitled “Listen to the Land.” Its message is of vital importance to all humanity and particularly to Jews: Listen to, and be concerned with, the land. Human beings must not take food for granted. We need to realize that despite the constant media hype, there is really no such thing as “Wonder Bread.” Many labors are necessary in the preparation of even a simple loaf of bread, and we human beings need to acknowledge and appreciate those who perform those labors on our behalf. Speaking of the primordial Adam, the Talmud in Berachot 58a expresses this concern beautifully: “Kahmah y’gee’ot yah’gah Adam ha’rishon ad sheh’mah’tzah pat leh’eh’chol?” How many labors did Adam have to perform until he found a loaf to eat? “Vah’ah’nee mash’kim u’mo’tzay kol ay’loo,” and I wake up every morning and find everything ready for me! This is the reason for the Jewish practice of religiously reciting blessings before and after consuming food, “Al ha’ah’retz, v’al ha’mazon,” we thank G-d for the land and for the produce of the land. We dare not take the environment for granted. City folks, in particular, often fail to appreciate how dependent we are on weather and what havoc drought and blight, heat and frost can wreak.

Our rabbis expound: Why is there a prohibition of cutting trees? Citing the verse in our parasha they explain: “Kee ha’adam aitz ha’sah’deh,” because the tree of the field is the human being. Is the tree an enemy that we should attack it? The famed Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spanish commentator c.1089-1164) explains that the human being is the tree of the field. We all depend on the tree to survive, and therefore we must treat it with care, respect and love.

This is the revolution that the Torah introduced 3,300 years ago. Its message is as fresh, as vibrant and as “green”–as if it were given today.

May you be blessed.