It would seem like not wasting resources, and preserving the world would be common sense, no brainer, consensus principles. And maybe they are in theory. But in reality, the planet is kind of a mess, and getting worse all the time. While it is tempting to throw up our hands at the scope of the problem, or to blame corporations, Mussar teaches us that we should approach life looking for small actions we can take in everyday life to bring ourselves into balance. After all, there is something inside that holds us back from doing the right thing. So the question is, what holds you back from repairing the world?
The teachings around the Commandment Bal Taschit translated as “do not destroy” are an instructive place to go as we look for soul traits to help us become more environmentally balanced within. Bal Tashchit comes from a principle that in the time of war we are not allowed to cut down fruit trees. You may eat of them, but not cut them down to make siege engines or the like. (Deuteronomy 20:19).
The Book of Education, (Sefer HaChinuch) written in the 13th Century relates this environmental stewardship to the state of the soul. It reads, “Righteous people … do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can, they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the wicked … rejoice in the destruction of the world, just as they destroy themselves.” (Sefer HaChinuch 529; )
If only it were that simple. We could blame the wicked for everything, secure in our knowledge that we are “outraged and sorrowful” with global warming, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But if you are like me, edible food ends up in the compost bin, and a large pile of trash is hauled away from my home every week.
George RR Martin, author of the Game of Thrones books, and Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings have different conceptions of evil. For Tolkien, Evil is external, in the form of Sauron, a supernatural being bent on the destruction of all that is good. For Martin, the evil is inside – each of his characters have the capacity for both good and evil. And some of the most interesting characters, like Tyrian Lannister have exhibited both in plenty.
Mussar sides with Martin – we are driven by the conflict between the Good and Evil Inclinations. Rabbi Ira Stone teaches that Mussar offers an opportunity to strengthen the Good Inclination by balancing our Soul Traits, which in turn makes it easier to keep commandments like Bal Tashchit. Here are three Soul Traits we can cultivate to strengthen our ability to protect our planet.
- Honor, which reminds us to Honor the Divine spark in others. – People need to eat, and to destroy fruit trees makes it likely that someone will go hungry. In fact, sages of the Talmud generalized this commandment to teach that we should not wantonly spoil opportunities or resources of other people. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught that the fruit trees are an allegory of human dignity, and we are forbidden from degrading human dignity. Thus, if we focus on the needs of others, bringing our Honor towards balance, we will be less likely to waste resources.
- Gratitude reminds us to recognize the good and give thanks. The Book of Education teaches that the purpose of the Commandment “do not waste” is to teach us to “love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us.” Thus by practicing Bal Tashchit we become more grateful, and conversely, if we practice gratitude, recognizing the good and appreciating what we have, we will be less likely to run out and buy the latest version of the iPhone, even though the phone we have is more than sufficient for what we need.
- Awe – to quote Eliza in the musical Hamilton, “Look around, Look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” The Baal Shem Tov said, “The world is full of wonders and miracles, but we take our little hand and we cover our eyes and see nothing.” The world is an amazing place, and if we take some time to appreciate the beauty in the world, we will, as a matter of course, be more mindful of how we use our resources.
Thus by cultivating Honor, Gratitude and Awe, we strengthen our Good Inclination, and can more easily keep the Commandment “Do Not Waste.” What is one small action you can take in your life to cultivate balance in one of these traits?
If you would like to start your own Mussar Journey, take the Soul Trait Profile Quiz right now.