In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read the following commandment, which is presented amidst various Biblical laws of warfare:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its 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… (Deuteronomy 21:19-20)
Interestingly enough, the importance of this law to Jewish tradition has had absolutely nothing to do with war. Rather, it has subsequently become the foundation of a Jewish ethic of energy efficiency (known as “Bal Taschit” or “Do not Destroy.”) In characteristically subversive fashion, the rabbis of the Talmud took the Torah’s concern over destroying fruit bearing trees during wartime and extended it to address more deeply the abuse of the earth’s natural resources. In one famous example they warn against creating a Talmudic era “oil shortage:”
Rav Zutra says, “Whoever covers an oil lamp or uncovers a naphtha lamp violates the law of Bal Taschit (BT Shabbat 67b)
For his part, the Rambam (Moses Maimonidies) extended this list even further:
Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of Bal Tashchit (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:10)
Thus we learn that energy efficiency is not simply a fad or bandwagon – the concern over the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources actually has ancient roots in Jewish tradition. This concern stems from the fundamental conviction that we are but temporary residents upon a natural world that does not ultimately belong to us (see for instance Leviticus 25:23: “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”) In an era that is consuming earth’s sacred resources at an unprecedented rate, this conviction speaks to us more powerfully than ever before.
(Want a more contemporary list of things you can do to observe the ancient art of energy efficiency? Click here for more ideas!)