Tu B’Shevat is an appropriate time to appreciate the greatness of creation, and to honor it. We read in the third chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) a mishnah that symbolizes the essence of the Torah’s regard for the purposefulness of all of G‑d’s creations:
Ben Azzai would be accustomed to say: Despise not any man, and carp not at any thing; for thou wilt find that there is not a man that has not his hour, and not a thing that has not its place. (Translation by Charles Taylor)
The mishnah can be divided naturally into two subjects: regard for the essential purposefulness of any human being, and that of anything that is not a human being. The second category, that of non-human, has an interesting and peculiar use of the Hebrew language: al tehi maflig lechol davar. The above classic translation translates the verb maflig as “carp” (to find fault with). Others translate maflig as “dismissing.” There are other attempts to translate such a unique word. Even though the numerous translations for the word maflig give a sensible meaning to the mishnah, without a more specific translation of the word there will be still lacking the inner essence of what the sage Ben Azzai wanted to teach us.
We see in the book of Genesis that the generation of the Tower of Babel is referred to as the dor haflagah, based on 10:25: “The name of the first [son of Eber] was Peleg, because the world became divided in his days.” (Aryeh Kaplan translation)
From this we see that the best translation of the word maflig in the mishnah is “divide” and “separate.” Ben Azzai is teaching us that everything in creation has a special part in G‑d’s plan for unity. We have to realize that once we separate ourselves from any object in the unified puzzle of creation, we have then created an unbalance and disruption in the supreme perfection and unity of nature and man’s world. If we look at an animal as if it is not within “our world,” we in essence create a schism, and the animal can now be treated as a foreigner on this Earth, without the rights and importance attributed to everything in creation.
The 19th-century scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Genesis (2:4), describes the work of G‑d’s creation as a whole and perfect circle (kalil), since everything that G‑d created found its correct and balanced place in the “circle of creation.” Everything has its place in the plan of creation, and it is “good.” It becomes “very good” when all the parts are working in unison.
The Torah’s world outlook of unity and purpose is what many modern scholars are exposing. Dr. Ronald Bissell writes in his Unity: Life’s Essence: “You will be taken on a solitary walk along a beach where you will experience the quiet observation of creatures and the rhythms of nature seen along the way. Through this walk you will find the unity found in all of creation. Like the sandpiper’s dance with the waves, you will gently discover the essence of your soul in the beauty and harmony of Spirit as it surrounds you. Through this quiet contemplation you will feel a sense of awe at the potential within each living creature—the potential to bring the experience of unity into the consciousness of our world.”
In practical terms, we see a number of practical teachings and laws that emphasize the value and purposefulness of the works of creation. The most well known example is that of bal tashchit, which is the commandment to not destroy fruit-bearing trees during a siege of an enemy city:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human, to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war with you, until it has been reduced. (Deuteronomy 20:19–20)
Bal tashchit, the prevention of wanton destruction, is the halachic principle that bases its origin in this passage from the Torah.
The author of the classic Sefer Hachinuch, in his commentary on this negative commandment of destroying fruit-bearing trees, says: “The source of the commandment is well known, in that the Torah is teaching us to love the good and the purposeful, and to cling to it . . . and distance ourselves from the evil matter and device of destruction. This is the way of the pious and men of great deeds, that they would love peace . . . and would not destroy even a mustard seed in their entire life, and they would suffer personal pain at any loss and destruction that they would witness. And if they had the ability to save an object from wanton destruction, they would do so with all their strength.”
In the book of Genesis (37:14), Jacob has a conversion with his son Joseph, inquiring about the welfare of his other sons. In the same breath, Jacob inquires about his flock of animals that are being herded by the brothers. The Midrash asks: “I can understand the need to inquire about the welfare of the brothers, but what is the need to inquire about the welfare of the flock? From this we understand that a person has to inquire about the welfare of anything that benefits him.”
With this principle in mind, everything in creation has the potential to give us benefits, and we need to treat them with this mindset.
It is stated in the Talmud (Berachot 50b) and in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that one should not throw bread and other food items on the ground, due the importance of bread and food in general. The Mishnah Brurah (a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch) comments that even if you did not throw the food on the ground, but you were simply a bystander, you should still pick up the article of food and have it disposed in a more honorable manner.
The Talmud also says that if you have taken water from a well, it is forbidden to throw out the remaining water; you should find some way to recycle it. We can learn from this that one should offer a ride to hitchhikers, so that we are not wasting the gas on ourselves alone. [Ed. note: provided that this can be done safely.]
This Tu B’Shevat, let us appreciate the unity and purposefulness of all creation, and rededicate ourselves to protecting it.