Under Jewish law, spoiling anything is a sin. It is a sin like for a Jew, like eating pork. [The concept is called Baal Tashchit].
In the book of Deuteronomy [20:19-20], it is written that when you lay siege upon a city, you shouldn’t cut the trees of fruit. Under Jewish law today, you can’t just cut a tree that bears edible fruit. You have to make a case to be allowed to cut it. Why? Because spoiling anything is a sin – spoiling not just a tree but even a piece of paper.
The basic idea involves having a certain respect for everything. It is a strange idea, perhaps.
Someone once spoke to a rabbi about the Jewish law about hunting. The rabbi was shocked. He said, “How can a Jew do something like this? Kill animals for joy?” That is, engage in hunting as a sport. There were Jewish trappers and Jewish hunters, but they needed food, so they trapped, and they fished, but to hunt for sport was considered beyond the realm; how can you do it? On the other hand, a friend told me that he was traveling with a group of friends in the Caucasus and they were hunters. They were hunting what were called white sheep, like you have here [in the U.S.] in the mountains, with the big horns. And the fellow shot the sheep, but then stood nearby. He is a simple person. He asked forgiveness, and blessed the animal to have a good rest. He hunted, but he still had respect.
The idea is that everything has a certain kind of right.
There is a story-again, a Talmudic story. There was a famous great man, and he was walking in a place, and in that place there was a little calf that was being taken to slaughter. In the story, the calf comes to him to beg for his life. The man says to the calf, “Go, that is your way of the world. You go to be slaughtered.” As a result the man fell ill for seven years, because he was not sensitive. How was he healed? One of the servants in his home was cleaning the house and found some little mice. She wanted to kill them, but he said to please keep them alive. Then he was healed, because he was caring.
The calf and the mice are living creatures. But then there is a table, or a piece of stone. Jewish mysticism says that everything has a soul, including inanimate beings. A stone, a pebble, whatever it may be. The difference lies with what level of a soul the being has. A stone has a very simple soul. The soul is the power of life that keeps it as being a stone.
Now the leaf of a tree has more life in it than a stone, an animal has even more, and a human being has more still. But any thing has a soul, every being has a soul. Holiness is a quality which is the quality of having a soul. And if something doesn’t have a soul, then you can’t speak about the holiness in it.
The whole world is filled with divinity. The divine is really the living power, the existence of everything. The existence of everything is what we call the divine rule. The divine rule of creation, “Let there be Light.” So light is living because it has the divine word in it. And the stone is living because it has the divine word in it. And this is connected with the notion of not spoiling anything.
Man is a becoming a viceroy to God’s royalty. So he is given the rule, the mastership, and the duty to change things for the better. It is his duty not to spoil things. He doesn’t have any mandate for that. He doesn’t have a right to spoil things.
I know of many homes where respect is given even to a loaf of bread. Bread is not thrown out. I have seen people who, when a loaf of bread falls to the ground, they kiss it. Because bread is something special, and you treat it with respect.
Bread is humans’ livelihood, and so it should be treated with more than just respect. In Israel, for example, if any bread remains, they won’t throw it into the garbage. Throwing it in the garbage would be to show disrespect.
Some countries create a huge amount of garbage, and part of the reason why is that they don’t care for things. When you look at most so-called primitive cultures, they see everything as a living entity and they have respect for everything. But now we are cultured and cultivated, and we care for nothing. It is the peak of being sophisticated.
Transcribed by Rabbi Simcha Prombaum – reprinted with permission from Parabola.