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Sukkat Shalom B'nei Noach




19 When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of you? 20 Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food may you destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. {P} (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

In this week’s parsha, we learn from the verses above of a prohibition against cutting down fruit trees.

The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 6:8) explains that the prohibition extends only to destructive acts, i.e., where there is no reason to cut the tree down.  If, however, the tree is in the way, or is damaging other flora in the vicinity, its removal is not considered to be destructive.  

The question of, “for is the tree of the field man…?” is a remarkable one. It pre-emptively identifies a certain misconception that we apparently can fall prey to: the idea that nature is our enemy.  The Sifsei Chachamim mention this in the name of the Chezkuni (Chizkiyah ben Manoach, France, 13th C.), and elaborate.  One might, during wartime or siege, perceive a tree as a combatant like its human counterpart, and therefore will subject the tree to conditions of attrition and destruction.  This, however, is not the case; even though our Torah does give certain parameters within which war can take place, fruit trees are not subject to the rules of war.  They are non-combatants.  By extrapolation, if you can’t besiege a tree, or, as the Rambam explains, or divert its water source, etc., you can’t destroy it in its entirety.

The world of nature is a world that sustains all of the Earth’s inhabitants.  It is not our enemy.  Clearly, man has been given stewardship over the world, and is allowed to subdue it to the extent that human life is made possible.  Yet, it is a very delicate system, and requires our conscientiousness.  G-d said to Adam and Chava (Eve), “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28).  In the Midrash, we find that this dominion is limited, as G-d told them, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are!  Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit.  Be careful that you do not ruin and destroy My world; for if you destroy it there is no one to repair it after you.” (Koheles Rabbah 7:13).  

The Sefer HaChinuch connects this idea to our mitzvah, explaining that, beyond the basic understanding and application, we learn a most important ethos, namely, to stay as far away from wanton destructiveness as possible–and to desire the good.  The “good” in this case means the proper maintenance of all that is beneficial to humanity.  Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the “Alter Rebbe” of Lubavitch) quotes the Talmud (Niddah 17a) to illustrate how piety is defined by the willingness to give up one’s personal convenience for the good of others.  The Talmud refers to the disposal of trimmed fingernails, which some may be aware are considered to be “radioactive” in a spiritual sense.  A pious person burns these, instead of simply throwing them on the ground or burying them, for even though burning the nail parings places him at risk, he would do anything to prevent damaging another person.  Value ascribes to the elements of G-d’s Creation because He is the Creator; our respect for life at all levels, for the environment, and for humanity, flows naturally from our Torah, for that is His Will.

May we be blessed to cultivate within ourselves a heightened sense of G-d’s Presence through our awareness of the world and its inhabitants, and to take good care of the world.

Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

By Rabbi Tani Burton

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