Plant-Based Torah: Parashat Shoftim – Pursuing Justice for the Environment

October 1st, 2019


​In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Moses demands of the Jewish people,  “צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף, Justice, justice shall you pursue” (16:20).

It also includes the following. “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down.” (20:19)

This injunction to protect fruit trees is a foundation of bal tashchit (do not destroy) and  “is the halakhic basis of an ethic of environmental responsibility,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. explains that bal tashchit, “underscores the Divine imperative for us to take matters concerning the preservation of our environment very seriously.”

As protectors of God’s creation, we each have a responsibility to pursue justice in the face of wasteful behavior that is destroying on our air, soil and water. Rabbi Sacks continues, “Not everything we can do, may we do. Transgress the limits, and disaster follows. All of this is summed up by a simple midrash: “When God made man, He showed him the panoply of creation and said to him: ‘See all my works, how beautiful they are. All I have made, I have made for you. Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one left to mend what you have destroyed.’”

As intricate parts of an interconnected eco-system,  the impacts of our behaviors extend from our own homes to communities and across the planet. Protecting God’s creation is an act of justice.   צַדִּיק כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח, “The righteous one flourishes like the palm” (Psalm 92:13).

In the United States, lower income communities and people of color are  disproportionately burdened by environmental degradation. These communities often live closer to to freeways, factories, power plants, toxic dumps and/or, fields sprayed with pesticides. They have worse health outcomes and are under-resourced to address these environmental issues. Environmental justice activists are fighting to lessen the impacts and clean up the environment of these communities.

Think globally, act locally, is still relevant.  Residents near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA (the nation’s largest port system) have a 60% higher cancer risk. But, a coalition of environmental justice groups continues to successfully get the ports to make drastic air pollution reductions, improving the lives of thousands of families.

When a group like Shoresh in Toronto hosts local families to harvest honey on its farm, the impacts of this simple act are numerous. It supports local honeybee populations (who are responsible for every third bite of food we eat), inspires kids to be environmentally responsible, upholds Jewish values about protecting God’s creation and encourages sustainable agriculture.

In celebration of the pursuit of justice, the teaching not to chop down fruit trees and the comparison of righteous people to that of a tamar (date palm) the recipe this week is  date paste. Date paste is incredibly easy to prepare and can be used in many different ways. Try it  on a piece of challah, spread on a pancake or mixed with berries.

Shoftim: Date Paste

About a cup of dates, water

1. Remove pits and ends of dates. Soak the dates in water for 1-2 hours. (enough water to cover the dates).

2. Remove from water and add dates to a blender. Add water slowly to keep consistency thick and smooth.


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