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Parashat Shoftim 5781

August 13, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Shoftim
By Rabbi Jill Hackell (’13)

I’ve been studying a lot lately about trees. Dr. Suzanne Simard has spearheaded research showing that the trees of the forest communicate with each other through an elaborate system of fungi attached to their roots, which has been dubbed the “Wood-Wide Web”. Through it, trees of the same and different species can warn each other of danger, share resources back and forth according to need and circumstance, and bequeath carbon to their neighbors when they are dying. This understanding could change the way we harvest and replant forests for lumber, to maximize preservation of these networks.[1]

Our parashah this week also shows concern for trees:

“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 that 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. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

The text begins with a general caution to spare trees in time of siege. It is followed by a question (which I have indicated in bold) which seems to want us to compare and contrast trees with humans.

Rashi explains the statement like this:

Is the tree of the field perhaps a human, to enter the siege because of you, that it should be punished by the suffering of hunger and thirst like the people of the city? Why should you destroy it?”

So, according to Rashi, trees are not like humans. They are not part of a war between humans; they cannot take sides; they cannot run away.

Josephus takes this further:

“…if they could speak they would have a just plea against you, because though they are not occasions of the war, they are unjustly treated, and suffer in it; and would, if they were able, move themselves into another land.“ [2]

The text then moves from concern for the trees to concern for human needs. It tells us that it is specifically the fruit trees that we must not destroy, because these trees provide food. Trees that do not provide food may be cut down to meet the needs of men, i.e., building siegeworks to help ensure military success. Humans are to avoid wanton destruction and wastage – no scorched-earth policy – but when there is a good reason, trees may be cut down.

Indeed, from this verse comes the concept of bal tashhit, which warns against wasteful destruction.

Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashhit, do not waste or destroy. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah Hilkot Melakhim u’Milhamot 6:10)

Certainly, the spirit of the verse in Deuteronomy is that humans may use natural resources for our own needs, but we must take all precautions not to destroy more than we have to. Dr. Simard’s research, with its insight into the natural connections within old-growth forests, can teach us how to do that wisely.

But that question in the verse – Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? – still gives me pause. Although the verse seems to provide the answer – ‘no, the trees are not human, they are without defense, they are not our enemy, and we should spare them’ – why raise up this comparison with humans in the first place? In addition, the Hebrew grammar makes the text ambiguous. The text can read: “perhaps the tree of the field [is] a human” (per Rashi); but it can also read: “perhaps the human [is] a tree of the field.”  And maybe, that is exactly the Torah’s message to us!

We are all connected and interdependent and, in that way, we humans and the trees are the same. When we exhale carbon dioxide, the forest breathes it in, exhaling oxygen which we breath in. All life forms are dependent on other life forms, both within the species and between species, and change in one will create change in the other. We need all the diversity of species our planet has to offer, and all the intricate ways they are connected.  It all works as one, it is all one, it is all the One.

[1] Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021)

[2] Josephus, Antiquities 4:299, quoted in The Torah.com “Are Trees of the Field Human?” https://www.thetorah.com/article/are-trees-of-the-field-human
Rabbi Jill Hackell M.D. (AJR ’13) is the rabbi of West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, N.Y. She also serves on the AJR Board, as liaison to ARC (Association of Rabbis and Cantors), and teaches bioethics in both secular and Jewish settings, including as an adjunct faculty member at AJR.