Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Don't Destroy the Trees!

In today's "Random Torah" we discuss the issue of wastage. Wastage refers to destroying things which have value. This can refer to wasting one's food simply because one purchases in excess, never to even think of using the food - and then throwing it away, to destroying things that have a purpose - even if we don't see it at the moment. The Torah prohibits, in the strictest of terms the wastage of anything that need not be destroyed.
כי האדם עץ השדה. הֲרֵי כִּי מְשַׁמֵּשׁ בִּלְשׁוֹן דִּלְמָא, שֶׁמָּא הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לְהִכָּנֵס בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּצוֹר מִפָּנֶיךָ לְהִתְיַסֵּר בְּיִסּוּרֵי רָעָב וְצָמָא כְּאַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר? לָמָּה תַּשְׁחִיתֶנּוּ?

כי האדם עץ השדה FOR IS THE TREE OF THE FIELD A MAN [THAT IT SHOULD BE BESIEGED BY THEE]? — כי has here the meaning of “possibly”, “perhaps” (cf. Rashi on Exodus 23:5) — is the tree of the field perhaps a man who is able to withdraw within the besieged city from before you, that it should be chastised by the suffering of famine and thirst like the inhabitants of the city? Why should you destroy it?


The portion from which this section is taken refers to the Jewish people waging a war against the enemy. Here, the Torah says that when entering the city, though one may come to kill people, it is forbidden to destroy its trees!

Can you imagine the scene?! A full blown war! People rushing in to kill others. Snares could be awaiting them everywhere - and the Torah says don't destroy the trees! From this verse, the Torah is highlighting that though it may become necessary to kill a human being - who is out to kill one, one may not use that as a justification to destroy everything else in the way.

Trees provide shade. They provide wood. Paper comes from trees. One climbs trees as a child. One eats the fruit of the tree when it grows. A person can use the lumber from the tree to build a house. It can also be used to build a coffin. If the tree is cut down, its stump may serve as a resting place for a weary traveller. The list is endless in what a tree can do for a person and does indeed do so during his life in this world.

Since the tree provides nothing negative (at least in the normal series of events), one may not needlessly destroy it, no matter what! It is a lesson in life altogether. It is sad to see people picking off leaves to throw them onto the ground - for no reason. The leaves are there for a reason. Well-known is the story of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe's father-in-law, who, when he was a child, was walking through an area with trees. He picked off a leaf from the tree and was scolded by his father, the Rebbe Rashab.

Everything has a purpose in the world. So long as the thing is not out to destroy another, its purpose must remain. The ants walking along the road are there on a mission. It is forbidden to kill them for no reason. This applies to any creature that is not threatening a person. The Arizal - Rabbi Yitzchak Luria - was strict in never hurting any creature in his life, and certainly not killing it, even if it was disturbing him for any reason.

So too should we learn from this the importance of not destroying anything needlessly. We must be careful not to waste our food. Not to waste our garments. Not to waste anything that can serve a good purpose. Even if we think that we have purchased it and now own it, and can do what we wish. We should think twice before simply discarding it.

This we learn from this powerful comment of Rashi regarding waging war on a city.

As for the tree in war, our Sages also teach us a hidden message. When one translates the sentence, one may also translate the words, "Is a tree of the field a man?..." to read, "A man is a tree of the field." Indeed a man is a tree of the field. By examining the life of a tree, one can understand the life of a man. Just as a tree has roots, branches and fruit, so too does a man have roots, branches and fruits.

Just as we must be careful not to destroy a tree, so too must we be careful not to destroy a man in any way. Here, even in the section dealing with full-on war, the Torah hints at a deeper meaning. We must be careful that even within a war situation to know well that we are killing a person who shares the properties of a tree. Just as the tree provides us so much in a tangible manner, so too does every person. Before we seek to destroy them, we should consider whether indeed they are as liable for the death penalty as we feel they are.

Of course, if a person is a threat, then there is war. And in that war, we kill the man who poses a threat to one's own life. There, we are still careful to respect life. When a tree has done no wrong, it is not deserving to be destroyed.

This is really a principle for life and one that we should all do well to internalise. Destruction should only be done to something that poses a threat to one. Beyond that, we must be careful to guard and respect everything in life. This is the Mitzvah of "Baal Tashchit".

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