One of the little known mitzvot in the Torah is the prohibition to unnecessarily destroy organic or inorganic matter. This prohibition is learned from the following verse.
When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an ax against them, for from it you will eat and you shall not cut it down, for is a tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you? Only a tree you know is not fruit bearing, it you may cut down and destroy and build a bulwark against the city with which you battle…” (Deut. 20:19-20).
From its context, it would appear that this verse prohibits (1) destroying fruit bearing trees, (2) specifically during wartime. However, the sages of the Talmud extended its parameters to include any unnecessarydestruction of property or matter. Maimonides, centuries later, accordingly codified it as such.
This prohibition does not apply to trees alone. Rather, anyone who breaks utensils, tears garments, destroys buildings, stops up a spring, or ruins food…transgresses the command ‘Do not destroy.’ (Rambam, Melachim 6:10)
This idea obviously has applications in the life of every Jew. Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century work which systematically discusses the 613 commandments of the Torah, made a connection between character development and avoiding even the slightest waste:
The root of the mitzvah is to teach us to love what is good and useful and to subsequently cleave to it; through this, the good will cleave to us and we will distance ourselves from every evil thing and every destruction (waste). This is the way of people of good deeds who love peace, rejoice in the good of creation and bring everyone close to the Torah. They do not destroy anything-even a mustard seed-and it troubles them to encounter any destruction or harm. If they can act to save anything from destruction, they use their entire strength to do so. (Sefer Hachinuch: 529)
The general prohibition against needless destruction, derived from the verse on fruit trees, concerns not destroying directly or indirectly anything that may be of use to people. It applies to wasting energy, clothing, water, money, and more. This might be understood in humanistic terms but considering it is one of the mitzvot of the Torah, it behooves us to identify it with G-d and Jewish theology. Is there religious significance involved with environmentalism? Yes, says one of the great minds of 19th Germany; Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He explains in very strong language that the prohibition “do not destroy” is “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which G-d has given them as masters of the world and its matter through capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.”
In a later work, Horeb, he observes that certain practices in Western society contradict the “do not destroy” idea.
If . . . you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving G-d who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as the means of wise human activity-then G-d’s call proclaims to you, “Do not destroy anything!” Be a mensch! Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human . . . However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human . . . and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me! . . . In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that all things are the creatures and property of G-d, and who then presumes to have the right, because he has the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols-anger, pride, and above all ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things.
Some people are abhorred by the idea of eating or having any benefit from animal based products but in Judaism all objects are viewed as creations of G-d and are only meant to be used (1) when this is acknowledged and (2) when they are being used or consumed in a constructive way for humanity. Accordingly, a Jew should not break plates, as was the custom in ancient Greece, just for fun or as a display of wealth. Just because one has the money does not give him or her the right to needlessly destroy something useful. The idea, “it’s mine; I can do with it whatever I want” is not a Jewish idea. We are meant to realize that what has been given to us, even if we earned it through honest means, is a gift from G-d and must be used for humanity. An abundance of wealth and good fortune will not justify needless destruction of goods that can benefit people.
The verses that introduce this mitzvah describe a war against an external enemy, but it is clear that the real battle to be waged is within ourselves. The tendency to be wasteful has its roots, as said above, in anger, pride, and most of all, ego. To tread lightly and live without wasting, one must cultivate the opposite of these traits-inner peace, humility and selflessness.
By consuming in a mindful way and not wasting, we can become healthier, more balanced human beings, and also promote a healthier and more balanced world. May the changes we make in our own lives ripple outward to our families, our community, and our planet.
(Sources: Rambam Melachim 6:10; Sefer HaChinuch 529; The Pentateuch Translated and Explained by [Rav] Samson Raphael Hirsch Deuteronomy 20:19; Horeb 397, 398)