Our parashah of this week discusses many topics
and of social ethics.
Today I would like to expand upon a topic that is only mentioned briefly,
but which holds considerable weight.
In our parashah it says:
“When you lay siege to a city for a long time,
fighting against it to capture it,
do not destroy its trees
by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit.
Do not cut them down.
Are the trees people that you should besiege them?
However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.” (Deu 20:19-20)
This whole section of the parashah deals with rules for warfare,
setting limits on what the Israelites could do and not do in battle.
The Israelite army may not destroy the source of sustenance of the enemy city,
if they are seeking to conquer it.
That is the “Pshat”.
the straight forward interpretation of the verses.
However, our sages took the principle of
“bal tashchit” …
“do not destroy,”
They treat it as a general prohibition against the destruction or wasting of anything potentially useful
or necessary to sustain life…
like the fruit trees.
Maimonides stated it this way,
This law exemplifies a basic principle of Torah and so it is understood broadly.
In a 13th century explanation and discussion of each of the 613 commandments, an even deeper teaching is provided for the principle of bal tashchit:
“The purpose of this mitzvah is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile
and to hold on tightly to it,
so that good becomes a part of us and those
who improve society,
who love peace and rejoice in the good in people will bring them close to Torah
According to this interpretation,
acting to safeguard the beauty and abundance of the world is a measure of our appreciation of it.
We talk about praying with
• Kavanah (intention)
and we talk about
• Tikkun Olam (repairing the world)
and we talk about
• loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Well, bal tashchit asks us to apply
that same intention,
that same spirit,
and that same love to the ecological consequences of our everyday actions.
Have you ever seen how trees are planted?
Young trees are planted in a designated spot, with supporting straight bars of wood and / or metals connected on both sides of the tree.
You know what those metal bars are for?
They are braces to ensure that the tree will grow straight up.
When a tree is young,
its trunk is soft,
and if it starts swaying and growing just a small extend curved, it will ultimately become a very crooked tree.
In Parshat Shoftim,
the Torah tells us,
“For is a man a tree of the field.”
What is the connection between trees and human beings?
One similarity is the gentle nature of the tree in its youth.
Just as the tree needs all the support it can get, so too a young person is very soft and easily influenced.
Every tiny defect can have a long-lasting effect as he or she grows older. As the verse tells us,
“Educate the young according to his way; even when he gets old, he will not swing .”
Another similarity is the structure of the tree.
The tree is made up of roots, branches and fruits.
The roots are the foundation of the tree,
Strong roots will make a strong tree.
The branches form the shape and structure of the tree,
and the fruits are the benefit we get from the tree.
Not only do we enjoy the fruit,
but we can take the seeds and plant another tree.
• Our roots are our emunah,
our faith in G‑d.
• Our branches are the mitzvahs that we do,
what make us into a good person.
• Our fruits are the people we influence through our actions. Hopefully they too will become strong, blossoming trees.
Let me end with this.
As we walk through the month of Elul and our preparation for the High Holy Days,
remember that Rosh Hashanah is not just the Jewish New Year and not just a time for Teshuvah,
but it is also considered the birthday of the world.
Let us prepare for that birthday by reexamining
our environmental kavanah.
Let us prepare for that birthday by remembering that
Tikkun Olam can go beyond repair of things of this world to repair of the world itself.
And let us prepare for the birthday of creation by loving our neighbors, in tending their gardens and working together,
This is our heritage.
This is our charge.
May we prove worthy.