2003Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy, occurring toward the end of this week's parashah, deals with the laws of warfare. The section ends with the following two verses:
You Shall Not Destroy
"When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees which you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced." (Deut.20:19-20)
1. Why does the Torah command us not to cut fruit trees, but allows non-fruit bearing trees to be used for implements of offensive war?
2. How do you understand the phrase, "Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you"? Is this a statement of mercy towards trees, or towards the humans who will need the fruit of those trees after hostilities have ceased?
In Rabbinic times, the prohibition of causing damage to trees in wartime was greatly expanded. Based on the phrase "lo tashchit" (you shall not destroy) in verse 19, came the laws of "bal tashchit", an entire category of destructive and wasteful actions which were prohibited. Maimonides summarizes the situation as follows:
...Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree in a destructive manner is liable to lashes. But it may be cut down if it damages other trees or causes harm to neighboring fields or because it fetches a high price. The Torah only forbade willful destruction. This is the case not only with trees. But whoever breaks utensils, tears garments, demolishes a building, stops up a well and willfully destroys food violates the prohibition of "you shall not destroy." (Mishnah Torah, Melachim)
1. How has the prohibition changed since its inception in the Torah?
2. Is there a difference in the thrust of the prohibition once it has been expanded to include the destruction of inanimate objects?
"For Jews, the environmental crisis is a religious challenge. As heirs to a tradition of stewardship that goes back to Genesis and that teaches us to be partners in the ongoing work of Creation, we cannot accept the escalating destruction of our environment and its effect on human health and livelihood. Where we are despoiling our air, land, and water, it is our sacred duty as Jews to acknowledge our God-given responsibility and take action to alleviate environmental degradation and the pain and suffering that it causes. We must reaffirm and bequeath the tradition we have inherited which calls upon us to safeguard humanity's home." (from the Founders' Statement, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, 1992)
Modern Day Navigator
In our own times, many caring Jews have taken the commandment of bal tashchit as a dictum to fight against pollution, deforestation and other environmental hazards. How might environmentalists use bal tashchit to defend their position? Is there a way in which logging companies could use it to defend theirs?
At the end of a passage that prepares the people for acts of war comes a statement that looks ahead to peace. Even in the height of the feelings of fear and anger that come with the waging of war, a soldier is a human being, not a machine that destroys everything in his path. Even in war, we must still be humane and follow rules of common decency and conservation. Bal tashchit reminds us that everything on earth is God's, not ours, and is precious, and not to be wasted.
Prepared by Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Jewish Chaplain and Hillel Director, The Claremont Colleges
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