This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, or Judges, in English. A large majority of the Commandments given in this parsha deal with exactly what you might think; proper ruling and the establishment of just courts. There were two particular verses that jumped out at me when reading through the parsha, however.
“When you besiege a city for a long time by fighting against it to take it, you do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. If you do eat of them, do not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man to be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not trees for food you do destroy and cut down, to build siege-works against the city that is fighting against you, until it falls.”Deuteronomy 20:19-20, The Chumash
At the very end of a chapter dealing with the proper etiquette of war, we have these two verses. We should not, however, be surprised that our Elohim has requirements and expectations of our behavior even during war. Chapter 20 begins by listing those who would be exempt from service. These include men who recently built a house, planted a vineyard or married a wife. Verse 10 tells us that before going to war with a city, Israel is required to “call out to it for peace.” A peaceful solution should always be sought first.
As you continue reading, the Torah lists the nations that Israel was required to wipe out due to their severe idolatry. These nations could be likened to a toxin that slowly leached into a water supply; their idolatrous ways crept into the bloodstream of Israel and killed them by weakening their dedication to HaShem. War was never meant to be a thing to glorify. It was a serious matter that demanded a firm resolve to see it through. This is likely why those men who’s thoughts would be preoccupied were exempt from service. It seems odd, though, that that this is where the verses about the trees show up. Israel was expected to destroy the people but leave their fruit trees alone?
“…is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you?”Deuteronomy 20:19
Rashi brings forward an interesting thought from this line in the text. He states the following: “In war, it is permitted to attack soldiers of the enemy, but a tree is not a soldier; why should Jews feel the need to deprive anyone of the tree’s fruit?”
The prohibition is solely for the fruit tree. All other trees may be cut down and used to continue the siege or for other purposes; but not the fruit tree. We know that spiritual fruit is a sign of maturity in believers. Galatians 5:22-23 lists nine characteristics that we should be expected to produce. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustworthiness, gentleness, self-control. We should be able to identify these traits in ourselves and in one another as we interact with others at home, in the community and our place of worship. These are to be demonstrated to others without reservation and we should have no expectation to receive anything back.
In his book, titled Daily Wisdom, The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes, “Our emotions are the measure of our maturity. Many people are gifted with superior intelligence or talent, but truly refined emotions are achieved by shedding childlike self-absorption and by contributing to the world. Similarly, fruit-bearing trees provide us with nourishment and delight at their own expense. In contrast, barren trees merely impress us with their stately presence; they may perhaps offer us shade, but they sacrifice nothing in so doing.”
After reading this bit of insight, this portion made a little more sense to me. While there are some very practical applications to caring for the trees, there seemed to be a hint at something a little deeper. Those who are in a position to judge and oversee others need to remain selfless. A tree that bears nourishment and gives shade to those who pass by expects nothing in return. It is their mitzvah, so to speak, that they produce year after year for us to enjoy their one-sided contribution. They will continue to give until they are destroyed or die out. For something that gives so freely to meet a premature end is not the way Elohim intended it.
In a chapter dealing with the realities of war there is a reminder of gentleness. Even when we find ourselves in the middle of chaos, calamity, and destruction there is a need to maintain our regard for the general well being of others and creation. We should not be so consumed in our wrath that the innocent and good suffer. So should it be for one who hears and judges with impartiality.