Is there a source in the Torah for being environmentally conscious? Do you feel we should be drilling for oil in Alaska? We are doing research project for school and I would appreciate your help.
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The Torah says that “in times of war, when we lay siege upon a city to conquer it, we are not permitted to cut down fruit trees to aid us in combat. Only a tree which offers no food can be cut down” (Deut. 20:19-20). We learn from this that not only are we not allowed to cut down trees which bear fruit, but anything in the world which provides benefit is forbidden to be destroyed for no reason.
The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah #529) says that we learn from this to deeply appreciate all of God’s gifts in this world. He says that the righteous have trained themselves, by way of this mitzvah, to delight in all the world’s treasures and be pained by the unnecessary destruction of even a mustard seed. They go out of their way to protect and save any and all things in the world from destruction, unlike the wicked who wantonly destroy anything and everything in their ways and don’t care the least.
One of the great builders of Jewish education in America in the early 20th century, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz, was once walking with a group of students through the forest, when one of them absentmindedly pulled a leaf off a tree. The rabbi was aghast and nearly overtaken by tremors. He explained that the entire world is God’s symphony, and every leaf and blade of grass is an instrument in that great symphony. To pull off a leaf for no reason is to hush the music.
This fits the Midrash which relates: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, Adam, He took him around and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See My works, how pleasant and beautiful they are. Make sure not to ruin and destroy My world’…” (Koheles Rabba 91:13; Mesilas Yesharim ch.1). Although the Midrash means not to destroy the world spiritually, it means physically as well.
For this reason, I personally am a big believer in recycling, as it fits into the Torah perspective of protecting the world. It’s no accident that Rabbi Moshe Gafni, an Orthodox member of the Israeli Knesset, was recently voted the most environmentally-concerned MK.
The Knesset has passed a number of environmental-friendly laws, for example requiring stores to begin using only biodegradable bags, which will need to be purchased by the customers, not just given out.
This prohibition against destruction, however, is not absolute. For example, the Talmud says that if there would be a greater financial loss to protect a fruit tree than its potential benefit, we would be allowed to uproot it.
Based on this principle, I will answer your question about drilling for oil in Alaska. We are talking about drilling for 10 billion proven barrels of oil, located on 0.01% of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The alternative is to purchase that oil from foreign regimes, many whom support international terrorism.
In the Torah outlook, we need to keep everything in perspective – to always look at the big picture and not miss the forest for the trees. Good luck on your project!