Parashat Shofetim Erev Shabbat Sept 6, 2019
Week of Sept 1-7, 2019
Torah Portion:
Deut 16:18-21:9 Haftarah: Isa 51:12 – 52:12
Theme: When you shall besiege a city . . . you must not destroy its trees (Deut 20:19)

This week’s Torah portion shows concern for various laws of warfare, some of which seem harsh to our ears, but war at any time is harsh, but they place limits on wanton destruction of life and property (see Etz Hayim, 1101). Of particular interest, in light of the upcoming 5th anniversary of Laudato Si: “Care for our Common Home” in 2020, is the prohibition against the destruction of trees: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it . . ., you shall not destroy its trees . . .. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?” (Deut 20:19-20). Even in time of war one must not forget that fruit trees will be needed to provide sustenance for families when the war has ended.

Harvey Fields records the following comment of Jacob ben Isaac: “Why does the Torah compare a tree to human beings? Because, just as human beings have the power to grow within them, so do trees. And just as human beings bear children, so do trees bear fruits. When a human being is hurt, the painful cries are heard throughout the world, and when a tree is chopped down its cries are heard from one end of the earth to the other” (Fields, 145).

From this Torah passage the rabbis derived a principle termed bal taschit, or ‘do not destroy’, which was formulated as a general prohibition against the destruction or wasting of anything potentially useful or necessary to sustain life (see MYJewish Learning). For example, we read in the Talmud: Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal taschit. (Kaddishin 32a).

And centuries later we read in Laudato Si a further development of this initial insight: “Let us mention, for example, those richly biodiverse lungs of our planet which are the Amazon and the Congo basins, or the great aquifers and glaciers… In some coastal areas the disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps is a source of serious concern (Pope Francis, Laudato Si).

In preparation for the visit of Pope Francis to the United States last 2016, Rabbi Daniel Schwartz, spiritual leader of Temple Hesed, Scranton, PA, prepared a document entitled “Laudato Si and the Sages: Reflections on Climate Justice” in which he selected a number of excerpts from the encyclical and paired them with Jewish sources for use at Temple Hesed on Yom Kippur that year. Now, almost five years after the encyclical the situation of destruction of our environment has reached dire proportions prompting us to look again at our religious sources for inspiration, guidance and motivation.

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] The subtitle of Laudato Si: “Care for our Common Home” suggested the following question to Rabbi Schwartz: “Do you think the climate is a ‘common good’? Why? Or Why not? How should we treat common goods?” [2] Rabbi Schwartz paired the following story from Leviticus Rabbah with the section in Laudato Si entitled “Solidarity and the Common Good” (¶14): “Some people were sitting in a ship. One of them began to bore a hole in the ship under where he was sitting. His companions said, what are you sitting and doing? He said, what has it to do with you? I am boring a hole under my part of the ship. They said, but the water is coming in and sinking the ship under us” (4:5). Rabbi Schwartz asks “Have you ever met anyone who ‘drilled under their own seat’ and didn’t think of the consequence to others?”

Bibliography: H. Fields, A Torah Commentary For Our Times: Vol III (1993); Etz Hayim; Pope Francis, Laudato Si (June 18, 2005): R. Daniel Schwartz, “Laudato Si and the Sages: Reflections on Climate Justice”; R. Norman Lamm, “Wasteful Destruction,” Commentary on Parashat Shofitim (Sept 7, 2019) on “My Jewish Learning” website.

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