It’s the worst aveirah in the entire Torah – at least according to our mothers and morahs.
Bal Tash’chis, the prohibition against being wasteful, appears in Parshas Shoftim in the context of war etiquette (D’varim 20:19). The Torah warns that when laying siege to a city, the Jewish army may not attempt to inhibit an enemy’s food supply by chopping down its fruit trees. Such a tactic is considered improperly wasteful. Later, Chazal discussed wider parameters for Bal Tash’chis, including unnecessarily destroying objects (Shabbos 129a) and – most familiar to us – wasting food (Shabbos 140b).
Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein zt”l (in Tosefes Brachah) explains that we can learn a lot from the original context surrounding the prohibition not to be destructive. Most nations possess the attitude that, at war, “everything goes.” An army in the throes of the battlefield has to deal with life-or-death decisions and high-leverage situations. The nature of war is that there will inevitably be collateral damage, and sacrifices must be made for the greater good. In the long run, what difference does it make if an extra life is lost here, or if a home is destroyed there – soldiers must do whatever it takes to get the job done!
The Jewish army, however, is held to a higher and holier standard. It is specifically in the context of war that our Divine Commander implores us to consider the value of every little thing seriously. Even a fruit tree may not be cut down to advance the goals of the army. Such an instruction is intended to shape our perspective that no living creature is indispensable. If we cannot dispose of inanimate fruits, then how much more so must we take precaution with precious human life – be it an injured Jewish soldier or a captured member of the opposition.
Practically, we can extend this lesson from the battlefield into our daily lives. It is specifically when we are on a righteous mission that we need a reminder that it is not only results that matter. We should not be so singularly focused on our professional or religious goals that we plow over anything – and anyone – standing in our path. Career ambition must not come at the expense of destroying a competitor. Getting up early to daven must be coupled with extra caution not to wreck someone else’s sleep. Such blatant disregard for others would be the ultimate Bal Tash’chis!
With proper appreciation of those around us – friend and foe alike – we can increase our sensitivity, and not “waste” opportunities to consider the needs of others in the face of our own.
May Hashem give us the insight and strength to take Bal Tash’chis on people as seriously as we do Bal Tash’chis on food!