In the year 2000, I traveled to India with Arun Gandhi—Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. There, he told me a story. Walking home from school one day he looked down at a pencil he had in his hand. But this was not a nice big new pencil—it was just a little pencil that had been sharpened again and again down to a little stub. Thinking, "I am Gandhi's grandson. Surely I deserve a better pencil than this one," he threw it into the bushes.
When he got home, he went over to his grandfather, and asked if he would get him a new pencil. Mahatma inquired about the whereabouts of the old pencil, and when he found out that Arun had thrown it away, he gave him a lantern and told him to go back and find it. A few hours later, well after dark, Arun returned with the little pencil, and his grandfather explained what he was trying to teach him. To discard a still-usable product made of natural resources is "violence against nature," Mahatma Gandhi told him.
From that point on, Arun was instructed to keep record of the violent actions he perpetuated against the earth. For every pencil he bought, he had to contemplate all of the pollution the trucks which brought that pencil to market caused, and all the harm the machines that made the pencils made to the earth, and all the pillaging of the lead ore that was done to the earth. Arun had to keep a chart of not only the pencils he bought, but also everything he did—all the paper he used, all the clothes he bought, and all the food he consumed, and all of that packaging! He became very sensitive to the impact of his actions on the earth.
This is a true story of Arun Gandhi relating his life 70 years ago—before Styrofoam, before plastics, before air travel. Imagine how much more destructive we have become of the world’s natural resources today.
It is befitting to consider our impact on the earth now, as this week’s Torah portion is Parashat Noach. This portion is about a man who God tells to build an ark in order to save animals of every species and members of his own family before the earth is to be flooded with a violent storm of rain and rising waters. This is the portion that tells of the intentional destruction of the earth. It befits us to pause now to consider the amount of damage we do to the earth unintentionally everyday.
As Americans, we are some of the most polluting people on the planet—each person throws away over 1800 pounds of trash per year. There are roughly 300 million people in the United States today. What if each of us were to cut our waste in half? Or, even just by 1%--how much better off would our world be?
Like the lesson that Gandhi taught to his grandson, Arun, Jewish values teach us that we, too, need to treat every resource we have on the planet with great care and consideration. The Jewish value is known as Al-Tashchit—do not waste.
In the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy, we learn that, “When you besiege a city a long time, …you shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them." We learn that we should not destroy- the text tells us: LO TASHCHIT.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, expands this idea. He says that one violates the command to not destroy not only when one “cuts down food trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys food on purpose.”
The rabbinic work called the Sefer ha-Chinuch, the Book of Education, further elaborates on this concept as it says that:
"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.“
May we each cherish everything we have on this earth, as Gandhi taught his grandson Arun, and as Maimonides and other great Jewish thinkers have taught our people for thousands of years. May we each consider the wanton destruction we perpetuate, not only with pencils but in all things, and resolve to treat this delicate earth more gently.