In recent years an important mitzvah has been largely forgotten by Klal Yisrael. Actually, it is not just a mitzvah that has been lost but an entire Torah value that impacts the very way we understand our world.
This lost value stems from the commandment that we conduct ourselves as good citizens – indeed, as patriots – of our adopted Diaspora country. This is something that should come quite effortlessly for American Jews, since there has never been a country as deserving of our loyalty and love as the United States.
On the other hand, ambivalence about good citizenship can distort our behavior and lead to fundamental errors in our observance of Torah. To illustrate this point I turn to a lesson from an Albany winter.
It was several degrees below zero the morning of my son’s bris. Friends and family came, and shivered, and promised to visit again soon – “you know, maybe in June.”
But we coped. Fur hats, warm boots, lots of layers – and good friends, with whom we traded tips on staying warm.
For example, the remote control car-starter I was showing off to my friend Daniel. “Push this button here twice,” I told him. “And then it starts right up. Ten minutes later you don’t even need a coat.”
Daniel is a good friend, but he was having none of it. Something about global warming and weather inversions and carbon dioxide. I understood his point well enough; idling cars are a serious environmental problem. But mostly I just ignored him and prepared to go about my business; after all, Albany winters are really cold.
A few months later, an article in The New York Times punched a hole in my smug attitude. The piece described the exorbitant expense that many frum residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood are prepared to endure in order to ensure they don’t chop down a fruit tree.
They build staircases – and in some cases entire buildings – around the trees, lest they violate the Torah’s bal tashchit directive. As I read the story, I remembered coming across one of those pear-tree-in-a-pizza-shop arrangements, and the exhilaration it inspired. It was like finding a diamond ring glittering out of a muddy ditch. “Holiness in a pizza shop – amazing!”
But something seemed out of balance. I didn’t remember a lot of hybrid cars (or even grass) near the pear tree in the pizza shop. It seemed as though some people were embracing a kind of “idealistic environmentalism,” with an exuberance for building staircases around fruit trees, even as they rejected the more mundane environmentalism of good citizenship: of recycling and composting, of buying energy-efficient light bulbs, of getting into a cold car – of being a good steward of the earth.
My confusion came at an opportune time. I was teaching an informal class that week for committed Jewish public school students and I had found my topic.
That week, we dove into the sources. As we did, we discovered that the Torah speaks directly to issues of environmentalism.
“If you’re besieging a city for a long time to conquer it,” the Torah says, “don’t hack down its trees with your axes; eat from them, don’t destroy them. After all, man needs fruit trees to in order to eat. But if you know that a tree is not a fruit tree, you may cut it down and build your siege-works against the besieged city.”
A few things stood out. First, the Torah is concerned with protecting nature. Bal tashchit has come to mean that we shouldn’t waste the food in our homes: “clean your plate; it’s bal tashchit!” The Torah itself, however, is focused not primarily on food in our homes but on the state of nature and the environment. The trees we are ordered to protect lie in unconquered territory, outside the land of Israel; they don’t belong to anyone in particular.
Second, there’s nothing really special about fruit trees. As the rabbanim explain, if a fruit tree is more valuable for its wood than for its fruits, you can cut it down; if it’s being destructive, you can cut it down. (“Pull it up by its roots!” is how one opinion expresses it.)
Indeed, to the rabbanim there is little difference between fruit trees and ordinary trees; it’s just that, all other things being equal, fruit trees are more valuable than ordinary trees (no matter what their actual price in the marketplace). Indeed, to the rabbanim, there’s nothing special about trees either; bal tashchit applies to all of nature and all of nature’s products.
There are also sources to support the pear-tree-in-the-pizza-shop type environmentalism, we learned. One of the rabbanim asserts that his son died only because he had prematurely chopped down a fruit tree. Rashi, among others, interprets an ambiguous phrase in the Torah to refer to the innocence of the trees, as if they, not man, are central to the mitzvah.
In the end, however, it was clear that Torah values primarily demand a good-steward-of-the-earth mundane type of environmentalism: Don’t waste resources. Turn down the lights. Recycle your newspapers. Compost your vegetable waste. Be efficient in using gasoline.
While the Torah also includes suggestions of a more idealistic type of environmentalism that may prize fruit trees for their intrinsic nature without regard to their practical uses, this approach is a minority view, secondary to the practical, good-steward-of-the-earth approach.
This conclusion raised an important question: Why do we seem to get the balance wrong? Why do we reject the Torah value of steward-of-the-earth environmentalism in favor of the secondary, minority value of pear-tree-in-the-pizza-shop environmentalism?
The answer goes to the very nature of our relationship with the world, and with the society we live in.
* * * * *
American society is increasingly secular. The concept of holiness has long been in decline. Pop culture bombards us with profanity: profanity of language, of images, of values. Faced with this onslaught, it is easy to conclude that we are not like them. We value holiness; they do not.
But Torah isn’t only about holiness. It’s also about the mundane. Sometimes it is Neilah on Yom Kippur. But often it is about the dozens of choices we make every day that are not strictly religious, that are not about holiness.
Sometimes, being frum is about how we handle our garbage.
In those cases, the Torah may instruct us in values that are the same as those held by our non-frum and non-Jewish neighbors. But because we may sometimes define ourselves in opposition to those neighbors, we have trouble acknowledging those shared values. We may go to extreme lengths to protect fruit trees because of the excitement we feel in extracting holiness from this mundane world, but we go to no lengths to recycle because that doesn’t feel holy at all, and would just make us just like them.
It isn’t just environmentalism. In many cases we choose to celebrate activity as “holy” because it is countercultural, and therefore feels good, even as we ignore important mitzvot because they seem commonplace and even feel “secular.”
Certainly, for example, the level of white-collar crime in our communities is painfully high in light of the values we hold dear. We worship at the altar of sickly fruit trees, it seems, even as we crush underfoot the mitzvot associated with good citizenship.
The problem does not suggest an easy solution. Defining ourselves as somehow “against society” by our holiness may cause us to lose out on important Torah values. But on the other hand, if holiness is increasingly absent from society, how can we choose to be anything but alienated from that society?
I believe the solution to this challenge lies in the mitzvah of good citizenship. I do not mean buying into secular culture, into the values expressed in movies and TV shows or popular styles of music and dress. I am talking instead about taking seriously our roles as citizens in a democracy, an obligation that comes directly from the Torah.
According to the Torah, Jews are obligated to honor and love our government and to contribute with every possible power to its good.
Indeed, it is our religious duty – imposed by God and no less holy than any other religious duty – not only to obey the laws of the land but, over and above that, to live and work as patriots and do with thought, word and deed everything that can contribute to the well-being of the nation that has given us shelter.
I can write these words with certainty not because I am particularly qualified to do so but because the two preceding paragraphs are, nearly verbatim, the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb, Chapter 96, Dayan Grunfeld translation).
If anything, R’ Hirsch’s description understates our duty. R’ Hirsch was interpreting a pasuk in Jeremiah, which described our obligation in galus Bavel; accordingly, he made clear, this mitzvah applies in every country.
But the Torah obligation of good citizenship is applicable in a special way to Jews in the United States because of the history and nature of the country in which we live.
America was founded on the idea that the authority for government comes from the people. The American Constitution laid it out clearly – “We the People” came together in order to form a more perfect union. Americans were to be citizens, not subjects.
This history matters. When our forebears came to this country, they came of their own free will and chose to become Americans. They voluntarily swore or affirmed the oath of citizenship. They chose to enter a partnership with other Americans to live as citizens in a free society.
Today – every day – each of us chooses to remain a citizen of this country. We willingly accept the benefits of citizenship – more precisely, we insist on them. We insist on equality before the law, absolute freedom of worship, and the right to speak our mind. We accept student loans and school scholarships and Medicaid and food stamps and Section 8. We seek the protection of state-licensed professions, and operate state-sanctioned businesses. We are more than ably represented by frum organizational leaders and elected officials.
We do not accept these benefits as a matter of charity. We demand them as our due. When a politician does not represent our values or our interests, we vote him out. When a policy offends our sensibilities, we go to court. And rightfully so. Because we are full members of American society, full citizens of our country. We are “We the People.”
But having accepted citizenship and its benefits, we are enjoined by the Torah to also accept its responsibilities, not as a debt to our benefactors but as the responsibility of willing citizens.
Rava says the first thing we will be asked by the Heavenly Tribunal is whether we gave and took faithfully. In our dealings in this world, did we act with integrity? Having accepted the responsibilities as well as the benefits of citizenship, did we behave faithfully as good citizens?
Though this mitzvah doesn’t require much, its performance can have a powerful effect on us. It goes to the very heart of our identity, to the question of how we relate to our neighbors, to our colleagues at work, to the country that has been so beneficent to us. Performing this mitzvah would allow us to live in harmony with the world around us, even while we reject as foreign those values and practices that conflict with our beliefs.
I have written in the past of the “Death of the Blue Hat Jew” (front-page essay, Dec. 24, 2010) – of how a certain type of moderate Orthodox Jew has been disappearing from the frum community. This kind of Jew often exemplified the value of good citizenship. But this mitzvah is not for one type of Jew alone.
One of the founding ideals of this country is that citizens can participate in society as they are. A chassid may serve on a jury with his shtreimel and peyot, just as a yeshivish person may, following the p’sak of Rav Moshe, eat Thanksgiving turkey in his black hat, and just as a Modern Orthodox Jew may celebrate American freedom as he marches for Israel up Fifth Avenue.
The mitzvah of good citizenship and patriotism applies to all who enjoy the great freedoms accorded by the United States. We have much to offer this country, and it repays us a thousandfold by freeing us to observe the Torah without the distortions engendered by having to live a life defined against the society around us.