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Waste not precious time
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Waste not precious time

Shoftim | Deuteronomy 16:18-11:9

The climax of a Jewish wedding comes at the end, when the hatan steps on and shatters a glass, everyone shouts “Mazal tov,” and the celebration begins. But these days, it’s often not a glass that the hatan breaks, but a burned-out light bulb.

Why? First, a light bulb breaks easily and makes a very satisfying “pop.” But more than that, many rabbis hold that smashing a glass, even for so wonderful a reason as a wedding, violates the principle of bal tashchit, which means “do not destroy” anything useful. A burned-out light bulb can no longer serve its intended purpose, so there’s no objection to breaking it. 

In Shoftim, the Torah says, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy [bal tashchit] its trees, wielding the ax against them…. Only trees you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks….”

When it is necessary to cut down trees for lumber, choose only those that do not yield fruit to eat. If this is true in the case of war, how much more would it be true under peaceful conditions. Therefore, the rabbis extended the idea of bal tashchit from trees to anything that might be useful to human beings.

As should be obvious, this is one of the Torah sources for the Jewish concern for the environment. But there’s another context in which to apply the idea of bal tashchit; there is only one resource that cannot be replenished and for which there is no substitute: time. 

None of us knows how many years we will have, but a week has only seven days, a day only 24 hours, an hour only 60 minutes. When we “waste” or “kill” time, it’s gone forever. 

A teacher stood before a class with a glass jar, a cup of sand, a cup of gravel, a cup of one-inch stones, and five large rocks. He asked, “Will all this material fit in the jar?” The students agreed that it would, so the teacher poured the sand, the gravel, and the stones into the jar. But when he tried to add the rocks, only two would fit. He told the students, “You’re right, everything will fit in the jar, but only if you do it the right way.” 

He emptied the jar and began again. First he placed the rocks in the jar, then he poured in the stones, which settled in the spaces between the rocks. Then he added the gravel, and finally the sand, which filled up the tiny spaces left among the rocks, stones, and gravel.

“Here’s how you do it,” he said. “First find time for the big things, the most important. Continue adding smaller, less important things, from largest to smallest, until all the space is used up. Your jar — your life — will be full and nothing important — family, job, friends, self, God — will be left out.”

Every day is a precious gift from God; if you waste it, it can never be replaced. Bal tashchit — do not destroy what has been entrusted to you.

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