A beautiful thing about many Jewish laws is that they are open to interpretation. Evolving analysis helps transform a seemingly obsolete idea into a concept that is relevant and applicable to contemporary issues.
Bal tashchit is one of those laws. Its original form commands to “not destroy with wanton abandon” (particularly geared to war time), because such acts would be excessive and wasteful. The example provided is with regard to fruit tree orchards, the destruction of which would cause suffering to both the victors and future gener-ations, so it is considered extreme. Over the centuries the bal tashchit interpretation has evolved to “you shall not waste” and encourages conservation, which, of course, is relevant to present-day living.
One lesson embedded in the Chanukah story references wanton destruction and conservation. The Maccabees triumphed over the Greeks and returned to restore and repair their desecrated Temple. There was only enough sanctified oil to burn the eternal flame for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days, long enough to procure more of the oil needed. In a sense, it’s a story about taking what is enough for one day and stretching it for eight days. It is also about miracles.
“If we’re talking about Chanukah miracles and conservation, we can just look at ourselves,” said Laura Menyuk, education programs coordinator at the Pearlstone Center. “If we’re made in the image of God, aren’t we a co-creator in miracles too? We don’t just use up and destroy the resources of the earth, we can also create miracles by conserving and re-creating those resources. Ideas of sustainability and energy conservation are an underpinning of all of our programs.”
The Pearlstone Center offers programming that makes the concepts of sustainability, consumption and conservation— bal tashchit — concrete and accessible to even the most basic beginner. They offer hands-on events, websites and media that instruct on ways to become more energy conscious and that help make caring for the environment a tangible, uncomplicated behavior to practice.
In one of the programs, visiting school children weigh leftover food collected from their plates after a meal. They collectively have many pounds of leftover food that would go to compost. The students develop an awareness about leftover waste and are challenged to see if at dinner they can aim to waste less. It makes a simple concept about food choice and consumption a very real, achievable and, more than that, understandable notion for anyone.
Pearlstone also hosts family camps, retreats and open-farming days that offer accessible and usable practices about recycling, home gardening, pickling and cheese-making. Their programming ranges from low-impact just getting your hands dirty (literally) in basic environmental practices to days-long immersion retreats that feature instruction, discussion and participation while living off the land and studying agriculture- and conservation-related Jewish text. Another offering is information on how to make a sustainable simcha, such as a wedding or bar or bat mitzvah.
Another local resource is the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (BJEN), which is a coalition of organizations providing education, programming and public policy advocacy and works to engage the Jewish community in sustainability and conservation issues.
Pearlstone Center programs can be found at Pearlstonecenter.org. Learn more about BJEN at bjen.org.
Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor