7 Elul 5772 / August 24-25, 2012
In this week’s portion, Shoftim, Moses continues his final speech to the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan River before they enter the Promised Land. In addition to finding the well-known phrase “Justice justice you shall pursue,” we are reminded in Shoftim that the death penalty may only be carried out if there are two witnesses who provide testimony (remember: to bear false witness is a transgression of one of the ten commandments and is a serious offense). We are taught that the witnesses should be the first ones to have a hand in carrying out the death penalty – certainly a strong way to help dissuade an individual from lying on the witness stand…
One of the more poignant instructions Moses elaborates on this week is that when the Israelites are besieging an enemy city, they are not permitted to destroy fruit-yielding trees.
Fruit trees hold a special place in our tradition. They are a source of sustenance for sure, but as you’ll recall in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, it was eating from a fruit true (the “tree of knowledge”) that resulted in Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. One of the more intriguing commandments, there are still plenty of Jews today who take conscious steps to avoid the destruction of fruit trees, even outside the context of war (see, for example, this recent NY Times article).
The ancient rabbis were able to glean a fundamental precept from this commandment, which they called “bal tashchit” – namely, that we are to avoid the wasteful or pointless destruction of property and resources. In many ways, this is a Jewish call for environmentalism and the conscious consumption of resources.
As Jews, we are commanded to not destroy things simply for the sake of destroying them. We are charged to find value, beauty, and utility in the world around us, and to consciously go out of our way to do so. This search goes beyond the mundane, and is applicable and essential to the future of Judaism itself.
How fitting it is that the Torah comes to teach us this overarching value in the specific case of a fruit-bearing tree.
“Eitz chayim hi l’machazikim bah…”
“It [the Torah] is a tree of life to those that hold on to it…”