There is a lesser-known principle in Jewish wisdom that is quietly forgotten amidst the renewal of modern American Judaism. In Hebrew, Bal Tashchit – do not waste. It seems that this practice of contentedness did not jibe well with American values of self, consumption, excess, and accumulation. The principle is drawn from the Torah’s ancient laws of war:
When you lay siege to conquer a city, and the war takes many days – do not destroy the trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but do not destroy them. Are the trees of the field human that they could flee from siege? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
As I write, the government struggles again to pass a spending bill, a shutdown looms, and concerns more significant than money remain ignored as a result of our system. It’s a worthwhile question to ask: If we were to judge America by it’s government’s budgeting habits – what values lay at the core? I’m afraid that my answer to that question is profoundly disturbing. I see a country that values greed, violence and power, and concerns itself with the wealth of a few to the detriment of many.
There is a reason Jewish wisdom identified ‘avoiding-wastefulness’ as a core practice, aside from the benefit to fruit trees in wartime. The practice includes minutia like keeping a flame low to save gas, and not over-eating or throwing away food. When we train ourselves to see value in every little piece of the world, we correct the innate self-centeredness that we are born with. We re-wire our minds for appreciation and sustainability.
How would your life change if you abided by the principle – don’t waste anything, ever?
I’m sure we’d actually get quite a few more uses from our shampoo bottles, our olive oil, and our toilet paper. But more than that – we’d be content with less, and we’d feel even more fulfilled. (We think more brings more happiness – it never does.) And when we get together to work out a budget, trust me, it will look better than it does now.
Rabbi Zach Fredman
PS – Join me and my friend, activist, teacher, artist, architect, Sam Spetner, who will join us to celebrate Tu Beshvat, and ask with us these questions – does Judaism carry any precedent for the wisdoms of permaculture? How do we carry these wisdoms into life in the big apple?