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Protect the Trees: Protect Our World

  • Protect the Trees: Protect Our World

    Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

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... (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

D'Var Torah

This week's parashah speaks of how justice is to be carried out as the people enter the Land of Israel, of the establishment of the monarchy and a supreme court, and of Moses' warnings against false prophets. Moses describes cities of refuge and instructs the people to increase the number of cities as their territory increases. The parashah concludes with statements related to the rules by which Israel is to conduct war.

These verses toward the end of the parashah, Deuteronomy 20:19-20, form the basis for the mitzvah bal tashchit, "do not destroy." While the verses themselves deal specifically with cutting down trees during war, the Sages extended their meaning to cover all forms of wasteful destruction. They taught that anyone who deliberately wastes our resources, either natural or man-made, violates the law.

For over 3,000 years Jews have been concerned about the environment. Although these instructions are specifically directed to the care of fruit trees during war, the lesson gleaned from them has far-reaching implications for life on this planet. Our ancestors understood that life depends upon preserving the land. Although they didn't use words like "ecology," "global warming," or "environmental crisis," they clearly understood and respected these concepts.

The tree in the Torah text is read by the Sages as a metaphor. They understood that the prohibition to destroy fruit trees implies that it is forbidden to destroy anything that was beneficial to humankind. Maimonides' Mishneh Torah tells us that a tree may be cut down if it damages other trees or causes harm to neighboring fields. According to Maimonides, the Torah only forbids willful destruction. We are not precluded from making use of God's creations but are warned against unnecessarily destroying gifts of nature. Needless cutting down of a fruit-bearing tree is forbidden not only in wartime, but at all times. Similarly, we may not destroy or waste anything useful, whether it be food or money or clothing.

In the creation story in Genesis 1:28, humankind is granted dominion over the earth. The same biblical passage that gives us this dominion also requires that we care for the earth; we are reminded that even as we till the earth, we must also preserve it. God's command to "rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth" gives us the responsibility to guard the world. Because God created the natural world, it is sacred. It is ours on loan, to be used and cared for. We are granted both dominion and stewardship of our world; therefore we are not to pollute its water or air or waste its precious resources.

As a child in religious school, one of the first stories I heard was that of Honi and his planting of the carob tree. When asked why he was planting a tree that would not bear fruit until long after his death, he replied that when he came into the world he found carob trees that had been planted by those who came before him, so he was doing the same for his descendants. It's a simple story that we tell every Tu BiSh'vat, but one that teaches an age-old truth.

Today's environmentalists raise the same concern as Honi. Since the mid-twentieth century, we have become aware that restoring our planet's diminishing resources is a crucial issue. The destruction of tropical forests, lumbering without reforestation, burning of land, and the general wasting of other natural resources will leave future generations with diminished resources. Just over forty years ago, author Rachel Carson warned of the dangerous effects of our lifestyle on the environment. Silent Spring spoke of our reckless attempt to control our environment by the use of pesticides and warned that destroying the balance of nature would ultimately do more harm than good.

Since Carson's best-selling publication, others have written on the same subject. Just ten years ago, Al Gore, in his book Earth In the Balance, wrote of his conviction that only radical rethinking of our relationship with nature could save our ecology. Whether or not we believe that we must save our resources because God has commanded us to do so, we cannot ignore what we have done to our world or sit idle without trying to correct the mistakes we've made.

Judaism does not separate people from nature. We're taught that the earth is one unit, just as God is one. Whatever affects plant and animal life affects humans as well. If we destroy other kinds of living things on this earth, we are also destroying ourselves. The most important lessons we can teach our children are that not only do all living things depend upon each other, but also what we do today affects what the world will be like tomorrow. Each generation is linked to the next by its actions. Like Honi, we depend on what those who came before us did, as our children will depend upon us. Whether it is wartime or peacetime, we must care for the natural resources entrusted to us.

By the way . . .

Look upon This Land

Look upon this land—
Touch it.
Sand under your bare feet,
The squish of mud,
Silky coat of cat,
Soft rose petals,
A smooth round rock,
Rain on your face.

Touch it with your eyes.
Cherry trees blossoming pink,
Lake of blue and summer sky,
The green of life,
Purple grapes and apples red,
Moon rising yellow,
Orange sun going down.

Touch it with your ears.
Splatter of rain,
Crack of thunder,
Wind whispering,
Birds singing,
The crying of babies and puppies,
Kittens and ducklings.

Touch it with your nose. Pine-scent of woods, lilacs blooming, new-
mown grass, smoke of chimneys, strawberries in the sun.

Touch it with your tongue.
Lick of sugar,
Tang of lemon, ginger, or spice,
Bite of cold snow,
Gulp of pure water.

Look upon this land—
Touch it.
Touch it in every way you can,
For this land is part of you,
And you are part of it.

Given into your care is this earth.
See how beautiful it is.
Be careful not to spoil it,
For if you destroy the world,
There will be no one after you to restore it.
(Kohelet Rabbah 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)

(Molly Cone, Listen to the Trees [New York: UAHC Press, 1995], pp. 42-43)

In Jewish liturgy, we find the following repeated time and again: chaim, shabbat, and shalom. These three terms form the underlying Judaic doctrine of respect for all forms of life. Throughout the Bible, we are urged to respect creation and not waste or destroy. Living things range from the human being to the simplest of species, and the rich variety of nature is to be cherished. In addition, Jewish tradition is distinctly linked to trees and to water; in fact, our Torah is referred to as the "Tree of Life." Jewish tracts entreat us time and again to respect and enhance trees and water. (Jewish National Fund Handbook, Operation Promised Land, Jewish National Fund of America)

Your Guide

  • Torah has a multitude of verses regarding the care of our resources. How do we decide which ones to follow? Do we pick and choose only those that affect us personally, or do we move beyond our own neighborhoods, cities, and even countries for the betterment of all humankind?
  • How, in this age of technology, can we ensure that we don't do more damage to our natural resources-our drinking water, our rivers, the soil, or the air?
  • When our military goes into another country to liberate it, as we have recently done in Iraq, do we have any obligations to the people of that country regarding the protection of their natural resources?
8/30/2003
Reference Materials: 

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164