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Global warming and the crime of lost potential – dvar Torah – The Jerusalem Post

Man is at his worst behavior during wartime – destroying lives and devastating his surroundings. Modern war feels slightly more civil, as it is generally brief and is conducted at a distance from the enemy. Ancient wars were more savage, bloody and vicious. Often, military campaigns stretched years, as prolonged sieges gradually starved and suffocated the population into surrender.
The Torah prohibits wantonly razing trees during these lengthy sieges. Barren trees may be felled but fruit trees must be spared. This prohibition, known as bal tashchit, serves a dual function. First, it curbs excessive brutality and tempers vulgar reactions. Facing stress and fear, soldiers often commit hideous and gruesome crimes. Protecting nature during wartime preserves human dignity, when it is most vulnerable. In 1969, Golda Meir commented, “When peace comes we will perhaps, in time, be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” The prohibition of bal tashchit restrains uncontrolled ruthlessness, preserving some measure of human dignity during war.
Second, and more importantly, the prohibition against vandalizing trees regulates our overall relationship with nature. Man is expected and encouraged to manipulate the forces of nature for human benefit, and on behalf of human progress. Yet, we must respect the Divine masterpiece of nature, avoiding purposeless depletions of the environment. This iconic prohibition of bal tashchit extends far beyond the military application; it applies to needless ripping of clothing and pointless killing of animals. Even under peaceful conditions, absent the pressures of war, humans must be mindful about draining nature.

Of course, the most familiar application of this rule concerns the wastage of food. In the modern context, the concern of bal tashchit and wasting food has dramatically shifted. Until recently, humanity often struggled to feed itself. In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that an industrialized world would soon become overpopulated and far outstrip food production. Humanity would be unable to feed an ever-growing population. His warnings haven’t materialized, as he overlooked the power of technology to adapt and provide sufficient food. Advances in industrial-scale agriculture, refrigeration and transportation have yielded geometric increases in food production, almost eliminating hunger as a source of death – at least in the First World. As food is so abundant, the parameters of bal tashchit have been redefined. It is likely that normal discarding of leftover foods which will not be eaten does not constitute destructive and prohibited bal tashchit.
While disposing of uneaten food may no longer violate bal tashchit, we face a newer bal tashchit-esque dilemma regarding wasting nature’s potential: global warming and climate change. As technology advances, we burn more fossil fuel and deforest our woodlands. We might have escaped the Malthusian trap of hunger, but it appears that our advanced lifestyles endanger the sustainability of our planet. Does the prohibition of bal tashchit mandate climate preservation? Does it prohibit not just felling a tree but abusing planetary resources?
Truthfully, it is a complicated question, both in the purely legal sense and from a moral perspective. The Talmud (Shabbat 140) ponders the preferability of consuming inferior barley bread in place of better-grade wheat bread. Consuming barley bread is less enjoyable but would conserve resources, as wheat is more valuable and more scarce. Perhaps bal tashchit demands long-term preservation of resources, even at the cost of current personal benefit. 
The Talmud rejects this option, authorizing the consumption of wheat bread: Squandering natural resources is a violation of bal tashchit, but so is the diminishing of human benefit. Eating barley bread would preserve natural resources but constrict human experience, and would violate the spirit of bal tashchit. The quality of human experience supersedes the preservation of natural resources. From a strictly legal and halachic standpoint, it appears that human need should not be confined or compromised to preserve natural resources.
BIRDS FLY near factory emissions n Tangshan, China, in 2016. Waskow emphasizes the importance of using religion to fight climate change (credit: KIM KYUNG-HOON/FILE PHOTO/ REUTERS)BIRDS FLY near factory emissions n Tangshan, China, in 2016. Waskow emphasizes the importance of using religion to fight climate change (credit: KIM KYUNG-HOON/FILE PHOTO/ REUTERS)
TO BE SURE, the issue of climate change is more complicated than the Talmud’s dilemma. The Talmud’s dilemma of barley bread or wheat bread challenges us to distinguish between human benefit and the preservation of nature. By contrast, climate change poses a very different dilemma: current human needs pitted against long-term planetary sustainability and long-term human needs. Do we have the right to indulge in our present, possibly at a cost to future generations and their needs? For example, it would be immoral to ignore debt, allowing it to swell and passing it along to our children. Would it be similarly immoral to exploit nature and her resources while possibly wrecking the environment for the future inhabitants of our planet?
This question should not be simplified. Man is gifted with creativity and expected to exploit natural resources for human prosperity. Just the same, as the creatures most Divine-like, we, like God, are also custodians and caretakers of nature. The duality of our relationship with nature is distilled in a verse in Genesis in which God commands humans to “develop our planet but also preserve it” (l’ovdah u’leshomrah). What happens when these two mandates clash? How do we proceed when our efforts to advance human welfare may endanger the conservation of nature? This is not a question that yields an obvious or simple answer, but it is certainly one we should contemplate.
An additional factor complicates the issue of climate conservation. After flooding our planet, God swore to Noah and to humanity that the world would never again be obliterated. Obviously, the Divine promise doesn’t preclude humans from triggering nuclear Armageddon and despoiling our planet. However, burning fossil fuels, even at our current exaggerated levels, isn’t vandalistic or malevolent. Perhaps we should rely upon the Divine promise that normal human behavior will not threaten global extinction.
Though the Torah’s will about climate preservation is unclear, many religious and morally sensitive people intuitively support policies that advance human progress while attempting to safeguard our climate for the future.
The preservation of nature’s potential and the prohibition against bal tashchit spotlights a more severe sin: the wasting of human potential. If misusing the potential of nature is criminal, squandering human potential is even more immoral. With the onset of Elul, the annual period of teshuva (repentance) and personal introspection has begun. Typically, we probe our sins, our moral crimes, our harmful relationships, and our general unhealthy behavior. What about the massive personal potential we waste? Shouldn’t our teshuva also probe the opportunities in life we ignore and the accomplishments we are too lazy to strive for? Focusing solely on repairing wrongdoings and misdemeanors yields average or pedestrian religious identity. In our pursuit of religious excellence, we must mourn the choices we didn’t take, alongside the terrible choices we did commit.
Commenting on penitence for lost potential, my revered Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, wrote, “The failure to exploit spiritual potential, the failure to drink spiritual life to the lees, is not just some kind of pallid passivity, but… is spiritual rot.” Describing repentance for lost potential he continues: “Along comes the opportunity of teshuva. Teshuva is not just an opportunity per se; it is the opportunity to amend for all the missed opportunities. Teshuva is the chance to redress the balance, to take all of that waste and not only neutralize it but energize it, even transforming it into a positive force.”
Teshuva is an opportunity to atone for lost opportunities. Don’t waste the opportunity.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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