Weekly Torah Commentary — Shoftim August 24, 2012

“When you wage war against a city you have to besiege a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” Devarim/Deut. 20:19

While this commandment on the surface pertains to the rules Hashem set down for warfare, our Sages have drawn deeper implications and have taught us that we should guard against destroying or wasting anything that is useful. For example, useable clothing in good condition should not be simply thrown away but passed on to someone else; furniture, books, any kind of household items that are still usable and could be useful to someone else should not be thrown in the trash. This also teaches us that we should not waste food or water. (I can hear my grandmother reminding me of all the starving children around the world!)

Here is Israel water is a huge issue as we live in a desert climate and water is a very precious commodity. In other countries, where there is abundant rainfall, water may not appear to have the same value as it does to Israelis. However, water is a gift from above – a “natural” resource, not to be wasted.

There is a much stronger awareness of ecology in our day which Judaism embraces, for after all, when Hashem created Adam and Chavah (Eve) and placed them in the Garden of Eden, he commanded them to “work at it and to guard it.”

But is there more to the commandment not to cut down fruit bearing trees in the process of laying siege to a city?

Psalm 92:13 “The righteous like a date palm will flourish, like a cedar of Lebanon will grow tall.”

Psalm 1:3 “His delight is in the Torah of Hashem and in His Torah, he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth fruit in its season; its leaf will not wither and whatever he does will prosper.”

Proverbs 11:30 “The fruit of the rightesous is a tree of life…”

These verses speak to each of us as individuals.

In addition, the nation of Israel is compared to trees in several verses from the prophets. In the interests of brevity, I will quote only one:
“I will be as dew to Israel, he shall flower like the lily and cast forth his roots like the Lebanon. His branches will spread out and his beaut will be like the olive tree..” Hosea 14:6-7

The olive tree has long been a prominent symbol of Israel and the application is drawn that just as olive oil is extracted by beating the olive, so the more the Jewish people suffer from the other nations, the more should our light shine before them. This of course requires that whatever suffering is faced, is endured in a spirit of humility and graciousness and with intent to profit spiritually from one’s pain, rather than be victimized by it.

Helen Keller is quoted as saying, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

Consider the process of how a tree bears fruit. Its roots grow deep below the surface of the ground, hidden from view. The tree’s trunk, branches, leaves and fruit draw their life from the roots and grow above ground, visible to all. Are we not exactly like that as human beings? The root of our life is the soul, hidden from view but designed to grow deep within us through a living connection to our God. What people see in us, represented by branches, leaves and fruit on a tree, is the direct result of the health of our soul. A healthy soul produces luscious ‘fruit’; an unhealthy soul the opposite.

Finally, not only are people compared to trees, but the Torah itself is also called a tree of life in Mishle/Proverbs 3:18. The Torah is a tree of life and calls to all humanity to choose its ways in order to enjoy abundant and productive living.

In Tune with Torah this week = Meditating on this wonderful creation – trees – is a fruitful exercise for challenging our own soul to grow and bear increasingly sweet fruit, particularly in this month of Elul. May all of our fruit be sweet and nourishing to everyone around us!

Shabbat Shalom

NOTE: I am happy to let you know that the book by the same name as this blog, IN TUNE WITH TORAH, is now available as a Kindle download, in addition to being a published book. Go to Amazon.com and enter IN TUNE WITH TORAH in the search bar.

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