The profundity of the Torah is articulated in its addressing the minutiae of
everyday life in all the different potential paths of the human experience.
This week's Torah portion deals with a plethora of diverse topics:
establishing a just court system, blemished sacrifices, the monarchy,
priestly gifts, cities of refuge for the unintentional murderer, the axed
heifer for an unsolved murder, and war. Within the focus on war
(Devarim/Deuteronomy 20), the Torah deals with all the relevant details:
anointing of leadership, choosing appropriate warriors, offering peace
before attacking a city, and being nice to the trees. Being nice to the
trees? The Torah is giving the guidelines to a successful military campaign
and it discusses being nice to trees!?!
Actually, the Torah is addressing the unnecessary destruction of fruit
bearing trees. "When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it
to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an ax against them, for
from it you will eat and you shall not cut it down, for is a tree of the
field a man that it should enter the siege before you? Only a tree you know
is not food bearing, it you may cut down and destroy and build a bulwark
against the city with which you battle..." (20:19-20).
Sforno (classic commentary on the Pentateuch by Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno of Rome
and Bologna, Italy, 1470-1550) explains the sequence in a vein similar to
many of the other commentaries of his era: When you besiege a city, do not
demolish the trees for the purpose of senseless destruction, with no
strategic objective other than harming the local population, because this
type of wanton devastation is representative of an army that is not sure of
victory and eventual population of the captured territory, but you, who are
sure of success in your mission, will inhabit the land. Therefore, do not
obliterate the fruit bearing trees from which you will need to eat. As long
as there are non-fruit bearing trees that will facilitate your military
objectives, it is improper to destroy the fruit bearing trees, unless they
are old and damaged and are no longer useful for that purpose. Sforno is
teaching that G-d has promised success in these military efforts, so the
Jewish armies must not employ a "scorched earth" policy in lands it will
eventually occupy. A very practical approach.
Sefer HaChinuch (the classic work on the 613 Torah commandments, their
rationale and their regulations, assumed to be authored by Rabbi Aharon
HeLevi of thirteenth century Spain) finds in this chapter a much deeper
meaning. The greater purpose of this commandment is to instill in the human
heart an endearment to all that is good and helpful; the outgrowth will be
that good will cling to us while we distance ourselves from all that is bad
and destructive. This is the way of the pious ones, those of great deeds who
love peace, rejoice in the good of mankind and bring them close to Torah;
those who will not ruin the smallest seed, are pained by any needless
devastation and will exert all their strength to save anything from useless
Who are we discussing and in what venue? These are soldiers waging war!
Yes, they are engaged in the divine charge of capturing the Land of Israel,
but they are engaged in mortal combat! How can this experience possibly lead
to "endearment to all that is good and helpful"? Is this really the
opportunity to follow the "way of the pious ones...who love peace, rejoice
in the good of the creations...who will not destroy the smallest seed"?
Sefer HaChinuch is giving us an acute insight into the incredible self
mastery and control with which we are all divinely endowed. Despite all the
legitimate, practical, and purposeful acts of destruction a warrior must
execute, he is able, in the heat of battle, to pause and focus, "That tree
does not need to be felled: it would be detrimental to our society, it would
be detrimental to my sensitivities." This absolute self-regulation is the
breeding ground for the appreciation of those countless kernels of good that
surround him in those nightmarish conditions.
Our day-in, day-out routine is filled with challenges to our character.
Trying to finish a report that was due an hour ago, juggling two phone calls
that got past the secretary who was supposed to hold all calls, and someone
walks into your office with a new crisis...How do you react? Do we "cling
to the good", appreciating our station in life and the successes G-d has
given us, loving peace and rejoicing in the good of the creations OR do we
turn that poor innocent messenger into the latest specimen of "wanton
devastation"? We have that self mastery...let us pause and contemplate our
reaction: Will it be detrimental to our relationship? Will it be detrimental
to my sensitivities?