- Weekly D'var Torah
One of my guilty viewing pleasures is Michael Schur's "The Good Place." Actually, strike that—I don’t feel remotely guilty about that particular pleasure. The show is brilliant, and has the added benefit of spawning a surprising number of D'vrai Torah due to its regular insistence on wrestling with complex and ambiguous ethical issues. (I suspect that across the English speaking world, clergy and educators everywhere will mourn its forthcoming conclusion. It appears we will have to start looking for contemporary inspiration elsewhere.) But for now, the opportunity endures; and while rewatching Season 3, Episode 11 ("Chidi Sees the Time-Knife") I found myself thinking about this week's parsha, Shoftim.
First, peshat, the literal interpretation of the text: towards the end of Shoftim, we receive a very specific prohibition against destroying an enemy's fruit trees in times of war. As few of us have ever encountered this specific dilemma, the rabbinic tradition, which compels us to always seek larger meaning, has come to understand that as a much broader injunction against waste. Bal taschit (“do not destroy”) is therefore a general principle that prohibits us from needlessly destroying any resource that can be considered a benefit to mankind, and is usually seen as a central textual justification for, among other things, Jewish environmentalism. It’s an important enough Jewish value that Sefer Hachinuk, a 13th century book of commentary that systematically discusses all of the 613 mitzvot, claims that Jews should “not allow the loss of even a grain of mustard, being distressed at the sight of any loss or destruction. If they can help it, they prevent any destruction with all the means at their disposal.” Other commentaries, both ancient and contemporary, lead us in the same general direction.
Which begs the question: how can we possibly observe such a broad prohibition against wastefulness? Even the most ardent environmentalist would find this an uncomfortably high bar to reach.
The Rishonim (our early Rabbinic scholars), however, understood that our observance of bal taschit could never be absolute. Observance of other mitzvot, for instance, were judged to take precedence. Similarly, if the benefit derived from destroying an object was greater than the value the object itself offered—if, for instance, the tree’s wood is more useful than the fruit—we are permitted to destroy. Other values—the very act of innovation, creating something new, is inherently inefficient—have to be weighed against the value of the resources they use.
Meanwhile, in “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife,” the main theme is that modern life has become so terrifyingly complicated that, for those seeking to live a moral life, it’s almost impossible to make ethical decisions. Buying a tomato, for instance, should be the simplest of acts; instead, even if you are obsessively scrupulous in your sourcing, you risk unwittingly supporting child labor, or industrial pollution, or corporate greed. So we are faced with a choice: act unconsciously and court yetzer ha’ra; remain frozen and morally unable to act; or isolate ourselves entirely from the community. (Believe it or not, Ted Danson and company actually make this point humorously—it really is a great show!)
The common issue, of course, is that even our best inclinations, when taken to their ultimate extremes, have the potential to lead us down troubling paths. Protecting the environment is indeed an important and worthy goal, yes—but it has to be weighed against other values. Similarly, living without doing unintentional harm is a treasured tenet—but so, too, is it important to live well. The point isn’t that we shouldn’t try to maximize our impact as environmentalists, and it’s certainly not that we shouldn’t try to live our lives as ethically as possible. Rather, an appropriate message to take away—both from Shoftim and from “The Good Place”—is about the dangers of looking at life exclusively through one lens.