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When you lay siege to a city… you may only destroy and cut down a tree that does not give fruit (20:19-20).
The Chinuch quotes the Talmud (Bava Kama 91b), which states that the prohibition of destroying fruit trees in conquering a city means unnecessary vandalism to productive trees. The emphasis is on unnecessary vandalism. If the wood itself has great value, or the tree is seriously underproductive due to age, it is permitted to cut it down.
The Sforno explains that leaving fruit trees standing in time of war requires an act of faith on the part of the Israelites when conquering territory in the region of the Promised Land. They must believe that G-d is on their side: 'For it is… G-d Who goes with you - to fight your enemies for you, to save you' (20:4). They must take on trust that their military success will be unqualified, and they will return to enjoy the fruit from the trees that they spared.
In addition, this goes to the heart of methods of warfare. Destroying sources of food - the 'scorched earth' policy (used by the Russians against Napoleon, and later against Nazi Germany) is a military procedure practiced for several reasons. It may prevent the attacking side from thoughts of retreat - panic spreads like wildfire, which in itself brings defeat, as Rashi (to 20:9) emphasizes. It can also be used to decoy the enemy to advance forward, giving the troops an opportunity to ambush and trap them within an area cut off from sources of food. It may also be used by the enemy to prevent the attackers retreating when things turn against them.
The Sforno's explanation quoting G-d's assurance of military success assumes that Israelites keep their side of the Covenant: 'If you obey G-d absolutely… He will make the enemies that rise against you run away from you' (28:1,7). If they don't, it will be the Israelites on the run, not the Canaanites (28:25). But what if they are 'in the middle' - or in the situation, as a community, which is partly worthy and partly unworthy - the all-familiar mix of saints of sinners? Or if they are seen by G-d as unfit to continue as His Nation in the Holy Land, but He nevertheless has 'mercy on them for the sake of His Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob'? (Kings II 13:23) In other words their spiritual position is such that they cannot take His Promise for granted.
The Torah thus demands that same act of faith from those taking a city - to respect the natural, fruit-productive environment as far as reasonably possible, whether they themselves are spiritually worthy or not. As Rabbi Judah the Prince explains, one should treat a small mitzvah (commandment) with the same respect as a great one, as one does not know the standing of each mitzvah in Divine Account. Indeed, those who appropriately spare the fruit trees in time of war should succeed in their military endeavors, and merit to enjoy their produce on return from war.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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