Parashat Shoftim – Erev Shabbat, 18 August, 2023 (5783)
Week of 13-19 August, 2023
Torah portion: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12
Theme: Do Not Destroy
In the twentieth chapter on Shoftim, sandwiched among all the “rules of warfare” (Dt. 20:1 – 20), in verses 19-20 is an interesting and unusual directive of ‘ecological compassion’ in the midst of a battlefield, on how to treat the trees outside a besieged town. Though environmental movements appear to be a modern phenomenon, we have much to learn with the help of traditional Jewish approaches to the text on the preservation of fruit trees.
In the midst of a chapter dealing with warfare, which, by definition, is destructive, the Torah demands a conscious need to maintain regard for the general welfare, and cleaves to the basic love of goodness. It is said that if people try to remain good, even at times that call forth their basest instincts, they will try not to waste even a mustard seed, and they will be able to perfect their character steadily.
According to Rashi, in the rules of war, it is permitted to attack soldiers of the enemy, but a tree is not a soldier, so why should there be a need to deprive anyone of the tree’s fruit? According to Ibn Ezra, since human beings need fruit trees for their food, the survival of people is synonymous with the survival of their food supply. Hence, human beings depend on the tree.
Moreover, the comparison of people to trees has far-reaching significance. Just as trees must grow branches, twigs, flowers, and fruit to fulfill their purpose, so human beings are put on earth to be productive and labour to produce moral, intellectual, and spiritual truth. Hence the Rabbinic Sages urge people to avoid all unnecessary destruction and to value the things that promote human wellbeing, referring to the reward for good deeds as ‘fruit,’ for they are the true human growth. This precept is designed to inculcate love of the good, the beautiful and the beneficial.
Unlike the general ancient mindset, the Torah forbids deforestation, which was a common practice in ancient warfare. This passage prohibits a “scorched-earth” policy, so common in the ancient world, with the exception that only trees that do not provide food may be cut down, if necessary to be used for construction and other meaningful purposes.
It is a sad but strong reminder not to be so carried away in time of war that people may forget the war will be over one day and they will have to live and feed their families in the place where battles may have been raging. Maimonides, the 12th century Rabbinic scholar writes: “Not only the one who cuts down a fruit tree, but anyone who destroys household goods, tears clothing, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or ruins food deliberately, violates the prohibition bal tashchit (literally, ‘do not destroy’).” While many ancient legal systems permit people to destroy property, the Torah teaches that we are only custodians, not the true owners, of our property.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Genesis teaches that human beings are given dominion over the earth. Parashat Shoftim prohibits mindless destruction and exploitation that endangers the very existence of the earth and its inhabitants. Discuss what is happening in our modern world and the thrust of the various environmental movements. 2. What can be learned about environmental preservation with the help of traditional approaches to the text?
Bibliography: Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary (New York, 2001), Plaut, The Torah, Modern Commentary (New York, 1981), Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Chumash, The Stone Edition (Artscroll Series, Brooklyn, NY, 2003), www.lightoftorah.netand Mimeographed class notes from previous Bat Kol Jerusalem study sessions.
This week’s teaching commentary was prepared by
Roy da Silva, MTh [Biblical Theology],
Chandigarh, India. Bat Kol alumnus, 2002 – 2006, 2015