Bal Tashchis: Man’s Quest for Control

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”

The famous quote by the first president of the United States, George Washington, has been taught to generations of American children. And the legendary story behind it, of course, involves his impetuous decision to try out his new axe on his father’s favorite tree. Whereas the emphasis always lies on the impeccable character exhibited in Washington’s decision not to lie, there is another element to the story, one that receives very little attention. While not lying is certainly worthy of commendation, is there not a concern with the thoughtless, impulsive act of chopping down a beloved tree with a hatchet?

At the end of the Parshas Shoftim, we read the following (Devarim 20:19-20):

If you besiege a city many days to wage war against it, to capture it, do not harm [any of] its trees by chopping it with an ax, because you eat from it you are not to cut it down; For, is the tree in the field a man to join the besieged to escape you? Only a tree that you know that it is not a fruit tree may you harm or cut down; and you will build battlements against the city that is waging war against you until it is conquered. ”

From this we learn the general halacha of bal tashchis, the concept of wanton destruction.  While the prohibition initially seems limited to specific types of trees, it is meant to include most anything of value. The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 6:10) explains as follows:

Not just trees alone, but anyone who breaks vessels, tears clothing, destroys a building, seals a spring, or ruins food by way of destruction, violates the prohibition of ‘not destroying’, and does not receive lashes rather, makkas mardus.”

The Rambam derives the extension from trees into other areas from the Talmud (Shabbos 105b), which states:

Surely it was taught, R. Simeon b. Eleazar said in the name of Halfa b. Agra in R. Johanan b. Nuri's name: He who rends his garments in his anger, he who breaks his vessels in his anger, and he who scatters his money in his anger, regard him as an idolater, because such are the wiles of the Tempter (yeitzer hara): Today he says to him, ‘Do this’; tomorrow he tells him, ‘Do that,’ until he bids him, ‘Go and serve idols,’ and he goes and serves [them].”

The obvious question that must be raised is the seemingly unlikely transition from breaking cups in anger to worshipping idols. However, a more intriguing problem exists here, one that sheds a different light on how to view bal tashchis. Clearly, the expansion of baal tashchis into other realms beyond trees is based on this piece in the Talmud. It would seem that there is one other factor which exists in the above examples of bal tashchis, something not mentioned in the Torah or by the Rambam—each act of destruction is done in anger. Therefore, one might deduce that anger is an essential component of bal tashchis. Furthermore, is there a difference between how the destruction comes about? Whether Reuven chops the tree down due to indifference while Shimon does so out of anger does not seem to be of inherent value.

Let’s first develop a basic approach to bal tashchis using fruit-bearing trees as the paradigm example. What is the problem with chopping down the tree for no apparent reason? The initial problem with this action is a denial of a basic relationship mankind has to the physical world. In general, the world around us, as created by God, serves to benefit mankind. To destroy the tree for no apparent reason would be to negate this very function. As long as the tree serves its role insofar as the physical world benefiting mankind, the person relates to it properly. This is why someone can cut down the tree if it is, for example, preventing the use of a field. Removing the tree serves to benefit the person. Since the underlying concept involves the overall relationship of man to the surrounding world, the halacha naturally broadens to include other areas beyond trees. The key concept is that destroying for the sake of destruction negates the function of the physical object, and as a created being, man has no right to partake of such an activity. This helps clarify the philosophical objection to bal tashchis. 

How does the Talmud’s concept become relevant? What role does anger play in bal tashchis? Koheles teaches us (7:9), “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry; for anger rests in the bosom of fools”, and the Talmud (Nedarim 22b ) explains, based on this, that the state of anger leads one to forget his chachma and increase his ignorance. How does anger bring this about? The drive to anger emerges from the inability and unwillingness of a person to accept reality. When objective reality does not conform to the subjective view of the person, anger ensues. Once a person is in this state, the natural reaction is to try and gain control, to bend that which surrounds him to his view. At times, a person is able to overcome it. In other situations, frustration builds, and at a certain point, the person lashes out. He tears his clothes or throws a glass against the wall--he establishes some sense of control over the world around him. The irony is quite evident here in that the very action to give the person a semblance of control is considered to be an action that is “out-of-control.” Yet it pacifies the person and settles him down. The point here is that it is the need to control the world around him that drives an individual to act in such a manner. The Talmud then explains how this situation leads to idolatry. Allowing anger to consume a person restricts the ability to think. Suppression of the mind is a primary means of bringing a person into the state of idolatry. It does not mean he is bowing down to idols; rather, it refers to the rational mind yielding decision making control to emotional impulsivity. 

The state of anger and its expression in destructive acts plays a crucial role then in understanding bal tashchis. In the throes of anger, at the peak of frustration, a person may seek to outlet his inability to control the situation by causing baseless destruction. It is the desire for control in this moment of uncontrollable rage that is the underlying common theme. As mentioned above, to destroy an object merely for the sake of destruction is negating its function and role in the physical world. In reality, man has a deep-seeded desire to control the physical world. When a person cuts down the tree, or destroys any item for no constructive reason, he is exhibiting a philosophical outlook of dominance and control over the physical world. The paradigm of this is the out of control state, where a person ceases to use his rational mind to view the world and accept it but rather reacts emotionally to the forces around him. It is this reaction, this incoherent rage, that underlies the concept of bal tashchis in the arena of anger. However, the overall drive for control of the world is at the heart of every incident of bal tashchis.

How mankind relates to the physical world is a pivotal concept in Judaism. Throughout the Torah, we see numerous commandments and prohibitions from God that help guide us to that ideal balance. With bal tashchis, we clearly see how a seemingly benign action can reveal a distorted view of the physical world, and how the desire for control of it plays a prominent role in the unconscious of mankind. The objective here is not to destroy (no pun intended) the hallowed image of George Washington – rather, it is to help understand our unique role as created beings and how the proper approach to our surrounding world can help perfect us.