בל תשחית - Ba'al Tashchit
The Jordan river flows from north to south along the border between Jordan and Israel. While the waters of the Jordan flow through the history of the ancient Israelites, environmentalists say pollutants, massive irrigation withdrawals and an ongoing drought are destroying it.
Long before humanity was faced with these problems Jewish tradition was addressing them. We find in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chap. 20: 19-20) a very simple solution to the problem of waste. Called bal tashchit, this law tells us "don't waste/destroy."
When you lay siege and battle against a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.
It was a common practice in times of old for invading armies to demoralize their enemy by "slash and burn" tactics, literally wiping out orchards, vineyards and fields. Never was this practice tolerated by Jewish tradition. More importantly, this prohibition does not just apply in time of warfare. There is a principle of learning the Torah called kal v'chomer (Hebrew for "the simple from the more difficult"). This means that when ever the Torah gives a specific prohibition within a specific context, that the prohibition applies to any context less difficult than the one stated in the Torah. In the case of bal tashchit, our rabbis understood that there is no situation more difficult than that of warfare. Consequently, the law of bal tashchit applies to every aspect of our lives.
Over the centuries, our rabbis elaborated on what it means not to waste anything. We are told not to use more than what we need, not to needlessly destroy anything, not to use something of greater value when something of lesser value will suffice and not to use something in a way it was not meant to be used (which increases the likelihood the item will be broken or destroyed)
Imagine if bal tashchit was practiced on a national level! Imagine if it was practiced just within your Jewish community, or at your place of business or at your school. The fact is that each and every time a single act of bal tashchit is manifest the world becomes a better place -though the effect may not be evident. We all know that we cannot control what the "other guy" does but we do have complete control over our own actions. We do not need political support or Federal laws or a grass roots environmental movement to bring us to the point of practicing bal tashchit in our own lives. Every day, we are given opportunities to reduce the amount of waste we produce and the amount of resources that we waste or needlessly destroy.
Reduce, reuse and recycle are three ways of saying bal tashchit. There are those opponents of environmentalism who contend that recycling is actually destructive to the environment. There are others who argue that "it makes no difference anyway" because no matter what we do individually there are still tens of thousands of other people who do not care how they use nature's resources or if they waste. Don't be swayed by any of these arguments. We practice bal tashchit for one reason - because it is the right way to live. And what each of us must learn is that we change the world by changing ourselves. Then we let the change spread outward - to our children, our loved ones, our friends, our business partners and co-workers - and so on and so on until one day the unimaginable becomes reality.