The biblical basis for baal tashchit (do not destroy) is found within the laws regarding making war, found in this week’s portion: “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 the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
Too often we focus on the legislation about war. Yet discover here profound teachings about the environment. “Are the trees of the field human?” Nature of course commands respect and admiration. Here, we are reminded that it demands care and concern as well or perhaps even more so.
The Talmud comments and expands the verse’s meaning: “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, do not destroy or waste.” (Kiddushin 32a)
The purpose of this commandment is not only our sacred responsibility to the world, but also to train our souls and ennoble our character. Sefer HaChinuch writes: “The purpose of this mitzvah is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: That nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can.” (Sefer HaChinuch #529)
The world remains in our hands. Like trees of the field, our one and only world cannot protect itself. That must be our holy task.