A World of Wastage

The recent rioting in my hometown Baltimore brought two memories to mind. One was the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was fourteen, and while we lived several miles from where that violence transpired, it affected Jewish-owned stores in the inner-city, and it taught those of us who were born after the Second World War that malevolence and mayhem remained, unfortunately, alive and well.

Ostensibly, the recent rioting was a reaction to the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed when in custody. Peaceful marches to protest that death were understandable, and in fact took place. (The death was eventually ruled a homicide by Baltimore State’s Attorney.) But then legions of young black men, many of them apparently high schoolers, began taunting and attacking police, setting fires and looting stores. Most telling were the delighted smiles on many looters’ faces, indelibly captured on film. If Mr. Gray was at all in the minds behind the faces, he had been grossly obscured by something else, an ugly anarchistic glee.

The rioters’ small minds weren’t likely capable of appreciating the irony of their actions. Not only the self-evident irony that they were destroying their own neighborhood (including a senior citizens’ residence under construction). But also the irony of the fact that the image they projected to the world is precisely what feeds negative preconceptions about black men, of whom Mr. Gray was only the most recent to die as a seeming result of police actions.

That’s what Elizabeth M. Nix, assistant professor at the University of Baltimore and co-editor of the book Baltimore 68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City, told an interviewer, she is “nervous about”: “more violent images, more reasons for people to stereotype us.”

Baltimore’s mayor and Mr. Gray’s mother strongly decried the rioting. A lawyer speaking for the dead man’s family said baldly that the rioters “dishonored Freddie’s legacy.” And President Obama succinctly characterized the rioters “who tore up” Baltimore as “criminals and thugs.”

Only the ethically unbalanced could (and did) try to justify the Baltimore violence. Could there, though, be something for those of us who would never think of committing burglary or arson to glean from the visceral disgust we felt at the rioters’ actions?

That question brings me to the second thing I was reminded of by the wanton destruction in Baltimore: the Sefer Hachinuch’s words on bal tashchis, offered in connection to the prohibition against cutting down a fruit tree during a siege (mitzvah 529). The Baal HaChinuch (in loose translation) writes:

“Included in the prohibition is the destruction of anything for no reason… The way of meticulously religious Jews is to love peace and to rejoice in the welfare of others… they will not destroy even a grain of mustard… and any destruction that they see causes them pain … Not so evil people, cohorts of demons, who rejoice in the destruction of the world…”

“Rejoice in destruction” well characterizes the Baltimore rioters. But we might ponder the positive example the Baal HaChinuch provides. For the Torah bar here is a high one.

Ours is a world of wastage. Not only grains of mustard but unimaginable amounts of perfectly serviceable food are daily relegated to the garbage dump. And it’s not only storekeepers and caterers (both of which are often required by law to dump past-prime produce) but all too many of us who see the value of things only in dollars, cents and convenience. Why bother “recycling” that leftover challah into a kugel for next week when kugels will be on sale at the store? Why freeze those leftover broken burgers when they don’t look appetizing and, anyway, the Nine Days are coming? Why make the effort to ascertain whether those items are really chametz when it’s so much easier to just toss them as part of our “spring cleaning”?

And who among us thinks — as my mother, a”h, who was more keenly attuned to the import of bal tashchis than most of us, did — of using a plastic or foam cup more than once? And when do we toss items of clothing — when they are in fact worn out, or when we simply fancy a change?

Admittedly, it’s odd to be stirred to such thoughts by the Baltimore rioting. Intentional, wanton destruction, after all, is a far cry from simple thoughtless wastage. But lessons for our own lives can lie in unexpected places, and we do well to try to find them.