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When you lay siege to a city… you must not destroy its trees… from which you may eat… You may only destroy and cut down a tree that is not a fruit tree… so you may build a rampart against a city that makes war with you until it falls (20:19-20).
These verses are understood by the Rabbis to carry the general prohibition of 'Bal Taschit' - the prohibition of wasting or destroying things of value. For example, fill your plate with a moderate portion of food and go back to the buffet if you want a second helping. Don't pile it up and then find that your 'eyes are bigger than your tummy', throwing the rest into the garbage. In addition, they are extended by recent authorities to include conserving, rather than exploiting the environment - using natural resources in such a way that they may regenerate and serve future generations.
What appears more difficult to understand is the source material quoted above for 'Bal Taschit' - which appears in the section of the Torah dealing with military operations in conquest. The Chinuch explains that the Israelites must be sensitive to general welfare even in war, which is in itself destructive. Respecting the goodness of nature and agricultural production even by the battlefield will underline the respect due to natural resources at all times. In this vein, Rav Kook was known to have rebuked his accompanying student for carelessly and heedlessly plucking leaves from a tree as they walked together.
In addition, it may be suggested that the Torah addresses its guidelines to currents deep within human nature. War is an extreme situation. Soldiers facing battle find they possess certain personal attributes they never suspected they had. Cast-iron focus on the conflict in hand: hesitation and fear being thrown aside. These often spawn dark psychological urges. They include two things implied by sections of this and the next Parasha: a craving to vandalize by wanton acts of destruction, and sudden yearning for sexual intercourse with attractive married women taken as enemy captives (21:10-14).
Both are understandable, and the Torah does not tell the soldier to negate his feelings. Rather, it requires him in to terms with his feelings. The Torah allows you to 'have a good bash' through axing trees in good cause - with its accompanying cathartic benefit. But that is so long as they are not fruit trees: paraphrasing the text according to Rashi: 'What harm has the fruit tree done to you that you should cut down its productive life for no reason?' Thus the Torah recognizes the base instinct, and points to a solution which at the same time heightens our moral sensitivity and responsibility to nature.
The same thing applies to the helpless, but pretty captive woman - unfortunately married to someone else. The Torah recognizes that a soldier will experience an all-powerful sexual yearning. So it does not apply the law/spirit of the Seventh Commandment, but relaxes it, proscribing how he should 'go slowly' and that by the time the month of waiting is over, he may well not be interested in her anyway.
Thus the Torah's principles harmonize with deep understanding of humanity. They certainly ask for the demanding and challenging, but not the impossible.
For those after more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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