By Gidi Kroch
Ehud is a farmer in the southern region of Israel. He grows peppers and, baruch Hashem, his livelihood is successful and he has no complaints. His produce is sold in major markets and some of it is even exported outside of Israel. However, every now and then, a situation occurs where he is unable to sell his goods. David, who runs a successful catering company, was also often left with a surplus of cooked food that never even left the kitchen. It pained him to see pots of hot stews being thrown away.
Luckily, both Ehud and David have found a solution to their dilemma. They both donate the excess food they’re unable to sell to an organization called Leket Israel which feeds tens of thousands of needy Israelis every week. Leket Israel was founded in 2003 by Joseph Gitler. Shortly after making aliyah, Joseph learned that one-fifth of Israel’s population was living under the poverty line and most of them were working poor. He was devastated to learn that children were going to school with empty stomachs, while farmers were destroying perfectly good fruits and vegetables, and catering companies and hotels were throwing away tons of hot and nutritious cooked food. Joseph, a frum Jew from New York, did not despair — he did extensive research into collecting and distributing surplus food. Every night he would take his private Subaru car and go out to collect the leftover food from catering halls, storing them in refrigerators lining his driveway. The next day, he would deliver them to nearby nonprofit organizations.
Over the past 16 years, the organization has grown and expanded. Today, Leket Israel operates dozens of trucks, a large warehouse in Ra’anana, and has tens of thousands of volunteers helping with Leket’s holy work. Vast amounts of excess fruits and vegetables are rescued from farms, and millions of quality, nutritious cooked meals are collected from event halls and catering companies — all for the benefit of tens of thousands of families across the country — through Leket’s 200 nonprofit partner agencies.
Recently, the Knesset, led by Knesset Member Uri Maklev and many others, successfully passed the Food Donation Act which removes liability from anyone along the food donation chain provided they adhere to the strict food-safety regulations. As a result of this law, many donors reached out to donate their remaining food.
Ehud and David are fulfilling the mitzvah of ba’al tashchit in the broadest sense in their work with Leket Israel. Most people associate the mitzvah of ba’al tashchit with not cutting down fruit trees. In ancient times, when there was a war to conquer a city or state, if the soldiers encountered trees that would interfere with advancing during the battle, they would cut them to clear the way. The Torah commands that the soldiers were forbidden from cutting down fruit trees because fruit trees provide nourishment. From this mitzvah, Chazal learned that we should not waste things that are useful to us. In other words, trees, tools, plants, and clothing must not be damaged.
The mitzvah of ba’al tashchit, which originally only dealt with destroying fruit trees, has been expanded and adapted to become a moral mitzvah which incorporates advanced values of sustainability, resource saving, efficient economic management, giving, mutual guarantee, and a balanced need that even reduces the need to plan family meals responsibly. Our eyes see that this commandment is both valid and relevant today for the general population.
Unfortunately, we do not always heed Chazal and many people do waste a lot of food unnecessarily. In the Leket Israel and BDO 2018 Food Waste and Rescue Report, it was discovered that rescuing food is affordable for every family, even families who are financially stable. The report also states that every family in Israel throws out an average of $3,200 a year. The next time you go shopping, don’t shop while hungry, check out the fridge and pantry before you go to the store, try to buy just what you need, cook a little less, and if you still have excess, freeze it.
The mitzvah of ba’al tashchit is actually teaching us to take care of the world in which we live. We are meant to see the good in everything and to move away from any kind of corruption and destruction. And of course not to throw away quality, nutritious food! Most importantly, we should remember that Hashem gave us a world sufficient for all of our needs. As a result, we are not allowed to waste or destroy anything needlessly. This is especially true when what we waste can and should be used as a mitzvah — like feeding the hungry.