FACILITATOR'S AID IN LEADING THE DISCUSSION
The original Biblical prohibition that came to be known as "bal tashchit" (text #1) was very specific. Taken in its most literal sense, it prohibits only the destruction of fruit trees, only when they are destroyed by cutting with an ax, and only during wartime. During Talmudic times, (texts #2) the objects, methods of destruction, and situations which fall under bal tashchit were greatly expanded. Early sages reasoned that if the principle applied even under the duress of a wartime situation, how much the more so must it apply at other times. (See, eg. Sifrei on Parashat Shofetim). Similarly, these sages deduced that other means of destruction besides direct destruction with an ax (such as destroying trees by diverting a source of water) were also forbidden. Finally, they ruled by analogy that not only trees, or even natural objects as a whole, were regulated by bal tashchit, but rather anything of potential use, whether created by G-d or altered by humanity.
Maimonides (texts #3) makes explicit this Talmudic expansion. He also sets clear limits on bal tashchit. First, it only applies to wanton destruction - there are exceptions when it is permissible to cut down trees. Second, he distinguishes between the protection of trees, which he considers to be from Torah, and prohibitions against destruction in general, which he considers to be rabbinic only, and thus carrying a lighter penalty. He also starts moving toward a more general ethical principle underlying bal tashchit - that it trains a person not to be destructive. The Sefer Hachinuch (text #4), a thirteenth century text which explicates in detail the 613 mitzvot, elaborates greatly upon this notion of ethical training. It states that the underlying purpose of bal tashchit is to help one to learn to act like the righteous, who oppose all destruction and waste. Doing so helps "good become a part of us".
Finally, Rabbi Hirsch (text #5), the leading Orthodox rabbi of nineteenth century Germany, sees in bal tashchit the most basic Jewish principle of all - acknowledging the sovereignty of G-d and the limitation of our own will and ego. When we preserve the world around us, we act with the realization that G-d owns all and is above all. When we destroy, however, we are, in essence, worshipping the idols of our own desires, living only for ego gratification, without a thought for the Divine. (Indeed, in an earlier passage (#62), Sefer Hachinuch goes so far as to state that idolatry concerns G-d precisely because it is destructive of the natural order.) By observing the mitzvah of bal tashchit, we restore our harmony not only with the world around us, but with the Divine Will, which we place ahead of our own.
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