Mayanot Parshat Shoftim: Trees of Life
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Shoftim(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

Trees of Life

"When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it and to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat and you shall not cut it down; is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you?" (Devarim 20:19)

 

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PEOPLE AS FRUIT TREES

According to the Maharal, the subject of the rhetorical question at the end of the verse is man, not trees; it is people who are being compared to trees, rather than trees to people. Trees put out branches, twigs, and flowers and they ultimately provide fruit that nourishes the hungry. Similarly, man is expected to be productive and labor to produce fruit. The fruit that only man can grow and the nourishment that only he can supply is moral behavior, and the pursuit and attainment of knowledge to add to the world's store of knowledge and wisdom.

In other words, people were not placed here on earth to harvest its fruits and reap its benefits and simply enjoy. The earthly inputs that we enjoy are akin to the soil that supports the growth of fruit bearing trees. Just as the fruit-bearing tree transforms the nourishment it derives from the soil into edible fruit, so must the human being make use of the inputs provided by the earth to make himself sprout and grow until he is productive and provides his fruit - wisdom and good deeds.

Pursuing the analogy, the prohibition against cutting down the fruit-bearing tree is based on its usefulness and productivity. Productive people, the allegorical fruit trees of the verse, are no less covered by this injunction, whereas the unproductive person who produces no 'fruit,' is left unguarded.

 

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IN MIDST OF WAR

In fact, the placement of this injunction is highly significant. The passage in which it is found covers the Torah laws of warfare, and our specific verse is written in the context of besieging an enemy city. War is by definition a destructive activity. It takes centuries of effort to develop civilizations and cultures. A single war can nullify the constructive effort of a chain of generations and wipe out the unique human flavor of an entire civilization overnight. The injunction against wanton destruction is placed in this passage to teach us that even when we are embroiled in destructive activities we must never forget that the ultimate goal of all human endeavors must be constructive. We must ensure that everything we do bears fruit.

The Torah laws of warfare themselves are built around this message:

"You cannot wage war against any people on earth until you first approach them with an offer of peace; this is true concerning all wars; optional wars as well as wars we are commanded to fight [the war against the Seven nations of Canaan, and the war against Amalek] if they agree to make peace and accept upon themselves the obligation of the Seven Noachide laws it is forbidden to kill a single soul; they can be taxed, and they have to accept the jurisdiction of the courts of Israel." (Maimonides, Laws of Kings Ch.6,1)

War is treated by the Torah as the clash between diverse civilizations. The minimum Torah requirement for defining a human community as a civilization that must be preserved is the commitment to observance of the Noachide laws. A society that agrees to abide by the Noachide laws is considered a fruitful human society. As such, Torah law guards its physical safety and integrity. Such a society cannot be an enemy by definition in the Torah's view.

On the other hand, when the opposing people refuse to abide by the Noachide laws and reject the peace offered in those terms, the Torah mandates the execution of the entire adult male population of the vanquished. In the case of the Seven nations and the Amalekites its measures are even harsher; it requires the execution of the entire vanquished population.

This appears very harsh and inhuman to us at first glance. Yet, these are the commands issued by the Merciful God to the people of Israel who are themselves expected to mirror God's attributes and behave towards all fellow creatures and especially human beings with the utmost mercy. Is there any way to rationally comprehend this sort of approach?

 

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WESTERN WARS

The history of the Western world is replete with warfare. But the wars with which we are familiar are not wars between contending civilizations. Most of the wars of the Western world, were fought by nations who shared the same fundamental Judeo-Christian beliefs and whose cultures were virtually identical. Generally speaking, the major difference between the contestants was the languages they spoke. The stakes in such wars were always concrete: control of some asset or territory. Peace was always a real possibility between the parties as they shared similar outlooks and values.

This continues to be the case for the nations that comprise the Western world, and largely applies to all so-called 'developed' nations. These nations have become so close to each other in terms of cultures and life-styles that the idea of going to war to settle disputes has become largely unthinkable. The theories of economics and government that the parties share, the common ambition to pursue a higher standard of living through the mechanism of free markets renders the idea of engaging in actual hostilities with one another totally absurd. The entire developed world is a single civilization.

 

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THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS

But there are other sorts of wars. There are wars between diverse civilizations and cultures, which differ not only in language, but also over fundamental ideas of what the world is about and the purpose of man within it. Compromise between civilizations is rarely possible once they start warring with each other. The clash between civilizations, even when it is ignited by the occurrence of a practical dispute, is never about the control of physical assets, but about the dominance of one way of life and one system of belief over a contending culture. In such conflicts, the losing side merely bides its time. Hatred and mutual misunderstanding simmer beneath the surface and confidence-building measures are extremely problematic.

The Torah adopts a city-by-city approach to the settlement of such conflicts. Rather than treating the entire enemy nation as a single entity, each local community is offered the chance of accepting the basic tenets of Torah civilization and due process by accepting the Noachide laws and jurisdiction of the Jewish courts. If they accept the dominance of the Torah culture and agree to avoid hostilities it is assumed that peaceful coexistence will be possible.

But when a community decides to go to war to defend its beliefs, and refuses to abide by the Noachide laws, in the opinion of the Torah, peaceful coexistence in the long run is impossible. The war will continue forever as long as the adult proponents of the opposing culture remain alive to spread their teaching. It may take a long time for hostilities to resume but they are inevitable. The subdued counterculture is a ticking time bomb that threatens Israel and will inevitably explode. Protective measures must be instituted even if the immediate danger is not apparent.

 

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DISASTERS THAT RESULT WHEN CIVILIZATIONS CONTEND

To see the disastrous results of the interaction between different civilizations, we have only to look at Africa. The Western world rejected the concept of colonialism and Western nations emancipated their colonies. The result of their withdrawal and this emancipation is an African continent riddled with civil war and starvation, Aids, corruption and mismanagement. Colonialism may not have been a desirable phenomenon, but there is little doubt that the emancipation that has replaced colonial rule is considerably worse for the average African. The colonial system totally upset the ancient modus vivendi that the warring tribes of Africa developed over the course of centuries. It redrew tribal borders and placed bitter enemies belonging to differing civilizations under the umbrella of a single administration.

This redrawn tribal map of colonialism required the supervision of a superior power to keep the peace. Once it was withdrawn the results were inevitable. Colonial rule is no doubt immoral but the way it was ended was unconscionable and caused centuries of harm. Having upset the balance of local power, the withdrawing colonial powers had a responsibility to see to it that the native peoples were left in a state of stable peace.

 

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MORAL STANDARDS

As this example of the abandonment of colonialism illustrates, when a clash between civilizations is involved, taking the apparently proper moral action is often inexcusable. The colonial order was established through violence. Violence inevitably alters the established order irrevocably. Once it has been applied the balance between civilizations can never return to the status quo ante. Once a situation has been forcibly altered by the application of violence the aim to reach ultimate peace must determine the morality of every behavior; actions do not have the same moral value as they would in peaceful times.

Life in a simmering war zone is impossible for all parties concerned. People cannot make a living and are unable to support their families. It is impossible to properly educate children, to travel freely, to shop, or to ever relax. Without peace there is no life. The attainment of true peace becomes the chief moral imperative in every war situation. Every action must be weighed in terms of its productivity for achieving peace in order to determine its moral rectitude. Violent acts that are anathema in times of peace can be justified morally in wartime if they can produce peace.

We, the Jewish people, are experiencing the tragedy of living in a permanent war zone on our very skins. We have staked our future on the return to our ancestral homeland. The civilized world, overcome by the horrors of the Holocaust, recognized the legitimate right of the Jewish people to a land of their own, and extended its approval to the Jewish return to the land of Israel. Once the decision to return had been reached, the successful conquest of the land of Israel became an imperative of Jewish survival no less than it was in the times of Joshua. We have sought peace with the Arabs ever since our return.

The tragedy we are living through is very real, but is only partially the result of objective circumstances. Moral ambivalence and confusion are just as responsible for our current problems as the objective realities are. Many among us are attempting to apply the rules of peaceful moral behavior to a war situation. This policy benefits no one - not ourselves nor the Palestinians. As our survival demands the success of the conquest, we must do whatever is necessary to complete such conquest. Only this can bring the war to an end and restore the peace. Restoring the peace is the only moral imperative.

 

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WE ARE NOT A COLONIAL POWER

Israel is not a colonial power. Jews are not imperialists seeking to exploit native peoples. We Jews have returned to this land as our own homeland. We cannot allow ourselves to be driven out of Israel; we have no place to go. Neither Jews nor Palestinians can survive and prosper in a perpetual war zone. There is no colonial power capable of imposing a peaceful solution and besides, the Western world has abandoned this method of imposing order as a matter of principle.

Peace is not a possibility with a people who send their kids to summer camps that preach hatred of Jews and glorify their slaughter at any price. The Israeli leaders who applied the European model of warfare and peace making to the clash between civilizations we are experiencing in the Middle East took an unconscionable risk. The Arabs and we do not share a common civilization. No Western population would tolerate the sort of dictatorship that exists in all the Arab countries for a minute. No Western population would tolerate such a great disparity between the rich and poor based entirely on one's location within the ruling oligarchy. No Western population could ever develop such a corps of suicide bombers.

 

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A CONCRETE EXAMPLE

But this is all too up in the air. Let us study a concrete situation that is still a part of today's headlines and try to analyze it from a Torah perspective. Israel blew up the house of Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas in Gaza a couple of weeks ago. There were a number of civilian casualties. Moreover, the fact that there would be such casualties was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances.

This action was attacked on two grounds. First, it was argued that we are no better than the Palestinian terrorists. Just as they blow up innocent people indiscriminately, we are guilty of the same crime ourselves. Second, it was argued that we are only feeding the never-ending spiral of violence. Hamas immediately swore to revenge the killing and sure enough, a week or so later they managed to blow up a bus full of soldiers at the Meron junction.

 

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THE FIRST ARGUMENT

Israel repeatedly offered the Palestinian people peace. At Oslo and finally at Camp David, the Palestinian's were offered their own state on the most generous terms Israel was capable of presenting. No counter demand was made other than the demand to stop terrorism and maintain the peace. Knowing that we had been stretched to the limit of what we were able to offer, the Palestinians turned us down, and initiated the wave of terrorism that continues to the present. We are not at peace; we are at war.

Wars must be concluded for the sake of all concerned. Normal life is only possible in a state of peace. Wars that go on endlessly eventually destroy both the contending parties. If they cannot be concluded through peace, and we tried that route, they must be won on the field of battle. You cannot win wars without attacking the enemy. Peace is the chief moral imperative in a state of war. Refraining from an action that promotes victory and therefore prolongs the war is immoral. Taking actions that bring victory and restore peace is a moral imperative.

In the Second World War, both sides engaged in massive bombing of civilian population centers. This practice was not based on gaining some military advantage. It was undertaken to demoralize the enemy and bring the war to a speedier conclusion. The only example of such an action that was demonstrably effective was the dropping of the Atom bomb on Hiroshima by President Truman. The Israeli army has never engaged in such actions. We have never bombed Palestinian civilian centers in an attempt to demoralize the enemy.

This is the Palestinian tactic - the practice of terror against civilians to demoralize the enemy, except that they have taken it a step further than the way it was practiced in the Second World War. Whereas in that war both sides used it in combination with military engagement of the enemy, the Palestinians employ discouragement of the civilian population as their sole tactic. True retaliation by Israel would justify the targeting of non-combatant Palestinians. This we have never done. Therefore, we have never, in fact, retaliated.

But the avoidance of attacking strategic targets because of collateral civilian damage is another matter. No one disputes the fact that the leader of Hamas in Gaza is an important cog in the terrorist enterprise. Palestinian terrorist leaders make sure to surround themselves constantly with innocent civilians. They know that Israelis are different than they. They know that we do our utmost to avoid hurting non-combatants. The decision to totally abandon strategic targets on the bases of collateral damage would constitute the abandonment of attacking such targets altogether. You cannot win wars by deciding not to attack strategic targets. Winning this war is the greatest moral imperative.

 

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THE SECOND ARGUMENT

We have attempted to tone down the violence several times by means of the application of unilateral cease-fires and by means of easing of restrictions on the Palestinian population. Each time the violence has only escalated. When we can see people dancing in the streets of Gaza on our screens, rejoicing over the successful murder of innocent Israelis, we can rest assured that it isn't our own actions that incite the violence on the other side. We must focus on the actions that will help us to win this war, even if it isn't absolutely clear and certain that they will be effective.

Remember that the moral imperative to pursue in a war must be the restoration of peace. If an action may possibly lead to such a restoration it is immoral to avoid it. In normal peaceful times the engagement in any form of violence can only be justified on the grounds of pure necessity. In wartime, the engagement in violence is a given, and will inevitably continue till the war is settled. The use of violence itself cannot serve as the bases of moral decisions in wartime. The quicker the war is won and peace is restored the more lives will be spared. Utility must serve as the guide.

 

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A BROADER PERSPECTIVE

From a broader perspective the Gaon of Vilna points to a very significant gematria [numerical equivalence] between the word 'etz' - tree, to which man is compared by the verse quoted in the beginning of this essay, and the word 'tzelem' - image, the word used to tell us that man was created in God's image. Both words have a numerical value of 160. [70+90]=[90+30+40] Man is only considered to be in God's image when he is fruitful. He must strive to settle and enrich the world, increase its store of knowledge, and engage in moral behavior to deserve the appellation of being the image of God and the special treatment that goes along with it. The restoration of peace is the moral imperative of the person who desires to be fruitful. Only peace allows fruitful development.

People who do not aspire to be fruitful do not feel the same moral imperative to pursue peace. Civilizations that discourage progress and development are fundamentally negative. Such civilizations must be subdued.

Published: August 4, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) gordon sack, August 11, 2007 9:06 PM

excellent

WHY IS A TREECOMPARED TO TZELEM ELOKIM RATHER THAN MAN WHEN MAN PRODUCES HE DOES SO FOR OTHERS BUT ALSO FOR HIMSELF WHEREAS A TREE PRODUCES AND PROVIDES ONLY FOR OTHERS LIKE SHADE AND FRUIT JUST AS HASHEM DOES

(2) Benjamin Levy, September 7, 2005 12:00 AM

The answer to the comment is that Israel is not A TORAH state and thus lacks FAITH

Israel is unfortunately secular, if it were a Torah state then Moshiach would have already come. However the secularists believe it is better to have ''rights'' to imorality and be in constant state of war with the world, muslims, and even our G-D, then to be moral, live a life of fullnes, united as one as brothers dwell under G-D. Utopia or rights that is the question. Shabbat Shalom

(1) C.Braun, August 6, 2002 12:00 AM

Logic, reality & the rest of the world....

Having read your commentary on today's headaches with the Palestinians, why is Israel putting up with their activities? Why hasn't Israel expelled these people who don't want peace, they want all of Israel....our land. Would any other country in this world put up with such things? Would any other country in the world give away their land for some other nation to take root? I see a double standard here. If the Torah says to be rid of those who won't at least follow the 7 noachide laws and live with us in peace....then why are we allowing this to continue? Why are we trying to make peace with a group of terrorists?

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