In furthering our quest for “mensch-iness,” let’s turn now to the mitzvah of bal tashchit, or respect for the environment and the commandment not to destroy or waste.
Long before the environmentalist movement or young Greta Thurnberg stood before the UN to plead the case of our planet, Judaism focused on the importance of protecting and sustaining our planet. We learn that our existence as humans is deeply entwined with the rest of creation, and that we have a primary obligation to tend, repair, and protect our world.
Let’s start, as they say, at the Genesis (pun intended) of it all, the first human being, Adam. The etymology of the name Adam relates to the Hebrew word for ground or soil, adamah. We learn that God places mankind in the Garden of Eden, “to till it and to tend it.” Rabbi Dov Lev wrote, “Mankind’s first mission was to tend a garden: Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to look after and cultivate the beautiful garden that God prepared.” A bit later we read about Moses, and that God first appeared to Moses in a thorn bush (burning bush) because, “God wanted to emphasize that even vegetative life is infused with the Divine Presence.”
We know that in Jewish law, ecological concerns are discussed regarding the necessary protection of fruit trees. Rules in the oral law, or what we call the Mishnah, describe laws against harming the public domain. From a debate in the Talmud we learn about the laws of damages, even as particular as smoke damage. More contemporary teachings talk about agricultural pollution. The mitzvah of bal tashchit also warns against destroying things unnecessarily. I could fill pages with what our Torah teaches us about protecting the environment!
Let’s go way beyond using up your leftovers or recycling your garbage (although that’s part of it too). Being wasteful and destructive are anathema to Jewish life. On a fundamental level, we Jews are meant to treat this planet and all its bounty as a gift from God, and as such to treat it with reverence. Even the laws of the Sabbath prohibit us from uprooting so much as a blade of grass. On the Sabbath day, it is not just we people who are enjoined to “rest,” to stop creating so that we can recognize that there is a creator. We are not allowed to burden our animals either.
Of all places, we read on the Humane Society website, the Torah commandment, “God forbids us to make our farm animals work on the Sabbath; we must give them, too, a day of rest (Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14). Indeed, through this commandment, the Jews can be said to have pioneered the concept of kindness to animals some 3,500 years ago.
So, how does this and so many other biblical examples make us mensches? How does integrating this value into our behavior create good citizens of the planet and make us decent human beings? We are Jews, so let’s begin with food! How many of us have been to buffets at parties or celebrations and seen people load their plates with far more than they will ever eat? Children can be particularly guilty of this trait, having eyes that are bigger than their stomachs. As mothers, we can teach our children to take minimal amounts of food, so as not to waste it, and go back for seconds or even thirds.
It breaks my heart to see those plates overflowing with rejected portions big enough for a village. Teaching ourselves and our children not to waste food is not just a Jewish mother’s stereotypical way of saying, “Eat, eat!” as it is often portrayed. It is the deeply held understanding that there indeed are people starving, and our wastefulness makes us insensitive to the plight of others.
While there are a myriad of jokes about Jews and food (think Jackie Mason, “The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small!”) a mensch behaves in correspondence with their soul’s natural yearning to do good. The soul is meant to “parent” the body by avoiding the sin of gluttony and wastefulness. The soul wants to enjoy delicious food and to thank the Almighty for the bounty. There is a difference between the French word gourmet and the French word gourmand. A gourmet savors and appreciates. A gourmand just eats copious amounts without imbuing any of the behavior with consciousness or grace.
And what about something as simple as brushing our teeth? Long before desalination happened in Israel, it was well understood that you did not waste water! Short showers were not just a social obligation, but indeed a necessity. In a land that has very little water, the prohibition of wasting it was bred in the bone. While many of us are blessed with abundant water supplies — beyond the water bills associated with our teenagers spending an hour in the shower (what are they doing in there?) — can we teach our children about not squandering natural resources?
When you teach your children to brush their teeth, ask them to turn off the water while brushing. Practicing consciousness about the prohibition of waste can make us mindful in even the most mundane of times. It is hard to remember to do so as an adult, but practice can act as a mindfulness tool first thing in the morning. We are blessed with water. Let’s not waste it!
And finally, let’s look at conspicuous consumption. In a world where more is more, one of the things COVID taught us is that we need decidedly less than we thought we did. The 18 pairs of shoes and seven handbags languishing in our closets attest to that! The piles and piles of toys left neglected on shelves and packed into closets remind us that we have more than we require. A wonderful practice for children is to ask them, when they receive lots of gifts for an occasion or birthday, to look through their things and choose toys in perfect condition that they do not use. Sterilize the toys properly and then donate them to a shelter. Have your children write little notes to accompany the toys, creating their own “toy story” and in the process internalizing that wasted food, resources, clothing, or toys that end up in a landfill are wasted opportunities to develop “mensch-iness.”
As we continue to mine the Torah for mitzvahs that help us raise ourselves into holy human beings, we will be filled with a deep appreciation for all that we already have. We will be less inclined to take our own and our fellows’ surroundings for granted. And that makes them, and us, truly mensches.