“The Torah-the First Environmentally-Friendly Treatise”
(updated and revised from Shoftim 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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


As I have previously noted, one of the primary arguments supporting the idea of the supernatural origin of the Torah is the abundance of revolutionary ideas introduced to humankind by the Torah. Of course, one could argue, as many do, that the Torah was not Divinely revealed some 3,300 years ago, but rather that, over the centuries and millennia, a group of brilliant Jewish scholars introduced these revolutionary ideas.


One major problem facing the argument endorsing the non-divine origins of the Bible, is that it maintains that at a time when the rest of the world was basically in the “dark ages,” Jewish scholars of great stature somehow conceived of extraordinary and exalted notions that transformed humankind. These revolutionary ideas include such fundamental concepts of civilization as “thou shall not murder”—reflecting the sanctity of human life, the prohibition of theft, reflecting the sanctity of property, love of neighbor, concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan and stranger, honesty and equity in business and in judgment, and the transformational 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 of these fundamental moral and ethical concepts? The alternative, of course, is to conclude that a Supernatural Being revealed these concepts to humankind through the Torah to the Jewish people. I would argue, that, in fact, it takes more faith to believe that only the Jewish people were fortunate to have such profound scholars who were capable to propound these brilliant and revolutionary concepts, than it is to believe that these ideas were Divinely revealed.


A marvelous example of the Torah’s exalted concepts appears in this week’s parasha, in which the Torah provides the Jewish people with explicit instructions on how Jewish soldiers must conduct themselves in times of battle. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 20:19-20, declares, כִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ, When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it to take it, לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ, You shall not destroy the trees of the city.


We learn from this verse, and other 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, before going out to battle. 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 through which the enemy forces can flee. These verses also declare, 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 body of laws are derived known as בַּל תַשְׁחִית, Bal Tashchit, 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 first human beings special instructions as they are placed in the Garden of Eden. וַיִּקַּח השׁם אֱ־לֹקִים אֶת הָאָדָם, וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ, and the L-rd, 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 the Jews were the founders of the, so-called, “green community,” the first to develop a consciousness for conservation and protecting the environment, in effect, the charter members of the Sierra Club. In fact, in next week’s parasha, in Deuteronomy 23:13-15, we learn specifically, וְיָד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וְיָצָאתָ שָּׁמָּה חוּץ. וְיָתֵד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ עַל אֲזֵנֶךָ, Jewish military camps must have a designated place outside the camp where soldiers are to take care of their bodily needs. Jewish soldiers must include a shovel in their equipment, so they may properly dispose of their bodily wastes. The verse tellingly concludes, וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ, 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 entire land, including all agricultural fields, must lay fallow in order to regenerate. The people, as well, are not permitted to work the land during that Sabbatical year, so that they too may be emotionally and religiously recharged.


Many years ago, on a visit to 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. Citizens of the world need to realize that despite its popularity, there really is no such thing as “Wonder Bread.” Many labors are necessary in the preparation of even a single loaf of bread, and we who benefit from the personal or commercial production of food, need to acknowledge and appreciate those who perform those labors on our behalf, and treat the earth, that brings forth the food, with reverence and respect.


Speaking of the primordial Adam, the Talmud in Berachot 58a, expresses this concern beautifully: כַּמָּה יְגִיעוֹת יָגַע אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן עַד שֶׁמָּצָא פַּת לֶאֱכוֹל? How many labors did Adam have to perform until he found a loaf to eat? וַאֲנִי מַשְׁכִּים וּמוֹצֵא כׇּל אֵלֶּה, and I wake up every morning and find everything ready for me! This is the reason for the Jewish practice of dutifully reciting blessings before and after consuming food, עַל הָאָֽרֶץ וְעַל הַמָּזוֹן, we thank G-d for the land and for the produce of the land. We dare not take the environment for granted. Sadly, until very recently, most city folks, often failed 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 Deuteronomy 20:19, in our parasha, they explain: כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה, because the tree of the field is the human being. Is the tree an enemy that we should attack it? The famed R. Abraham Ibn Ezra 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 launched 3,300 years ago. Its message is as fresh, as vibrant and as “green”–as if it were given today.


May you be blessed.