Years ago, I had the opportunity to study informally with Dr. David Weiss, the former head of Hadassah Medical Center's immunology department in Jerusalem. To this day I recall a touching story he shared, one that helps bring to life this week's Torah portion.
A deeply religious, educated Jew, Weiss described what life was like learning in a European yeshiva as a child. One day, during a boring interlude, he carved his initials into his desk. Catching him in the act, his teacher slowly started walking towards him. Weiss described the absolute panic that ran through his body, thinking for certain he would be physically hit and publicly humiliated in front of all his classmates.
The teacher made his way alongside Weiss and paused. In a voice that was surprisingly kind yet instructive, he pointed out to him how useful the desk was. The teacher explained that when he was tired, it supported his body; that it held his books so he could learn; and it provided a work area for his paper and quill, which helped him to write properly.
After a few minutes, the teacher finished his sensitive rebuke by asking: "Is this how you treat something so beneficial?"
The young student had not been struck, nor had he been ridiculed or embarrassed. Instead, he had been taught one of life's great lessons, a lesson derived from the very heart of our ethical religion.
While the language is ambiguous, a verse found in this week's Torah portion (Deuteronomy 20:19), supplies the biblical foundation for Dr. Weiss' story. Everett Fox, in his translation of the Torah, renders the verse, "When you besiege a town for many days, waging war against it, to seize it, you are not to bring ruin on its trees... for from them you eat."
The biblical commandment focuses on the importance of preserving trees, particularly fruit trees. In a civilization largely agrarian and arid, the need to protect trees was obvious. But so important were trees considered hundreds of years later that the Talmud forbade shifting the course of a stream, lest it cause a tree's roots to wither.
The rabbis go even further in their understanding and application of the biblical injunction. From the verse they derive the rabbinic principle of bal tashchit, the prohibition against the wanton destruction of anything. When taken seriously, bal tashchit becomes the moral paradigm that forbids all unnecessary destruction. That goes for intangible things as well - relationships or someone else's feelings.
The rabbis knew then what all of us know today: All too often, we needlessly and thoughtlessly destroy our relationships with others. All too often we "carve our initials" in them, failing to realize the importance they serve, let alone the hurt that is caused by doing so.
In an era when everything is increasingly more disposable and rendered obsolete, the Bible teaches us to appreciate and preserve what we have. Of course there are times to uproot a tree to make way for a new house, road or even a parking lot. Yes, even old desks must be broken down and replaced after a while. There are times when even relationships must be reevaluated and possibly severed.
But in a world that ultimately belongs to God, the timeless principle of bal tashchit provides a necessary perspective, a moral anchor if you will. It reminds us that everything in life has a purpose. Above all, it reminds us of our Jewish mission: to repair God's world and not to harm it.
Michael Gottlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma'arav in Santa Monica.