Rabbi Grossman’s distinction between actions we do because we wish to and those we do because we are commanded to is a vitally important one. Vice President Cheney famously asserted that conservation was a personal virtue–that is, a nice thing to do if you feel like but that’s really your own business.
What’s so striking about the Torah’s approach to the world is that there is no such thing as “our own business.” If you find your neighbor’s donkey wandering, you are required to seek out your neighbor to return it, (Ex. 23:4). If a neighboring town is full of idolaters, you are required to make war on it, (Deut. 13:12-16). If you find a body in a field, you are required to perform certain rites to expiate the sin, (Deut. 21:1-9).
The point is simply that the ancient Israelites recognized that we don’t act in a vacuum–we are inextricably connected to one another and to God. What any one person does may affect all of us. Ironically, globalization just proves the point that there is no such thing as a local issue (and if you haven’t already, check out this amazing article from the NY Times Magazine about what happens to our cell phones when we’re done with them). Our world and our environment is interconnected, and when deforestation or pollution happens anywhere in the world it affects all of us in the form of rising temperatures, rising ocean levels, and a decline in biodiversity.
The Torah tells us we can’t simply stick our heads in the sand and pretend that whatever is going on is someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem. Instead, it promulgated laws that placed responsibility for the greater good squarely on all our shoulders. We need to follow suit before it’s too late.