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The Most Moral Army in the World

By: Ms. Sefi Kraut

Parshat Shoftim discusses many crucial issues in Jewish law. Included in the parsha are rules governing proper behavior in battle, such as the relationship among fellow soldiers and how to approach the enemy. Within the context of war, the Torah surprisingly includes a mitzvah relating to nature (דברים כ:י'ט-כ'):

 "כי־תצור אל־עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא־תשחית את־עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור:  רק עץ אשר־תדע כי לא־עץ מאכל הוא אתו תשחית וכרת ובנית מצור על־העיר אשר־הוא עשה עמך מלחמה עד רדתה"

“When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by forcing an ax against them; for you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man that it should besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not trees for food, you shall destroy and cut them down; and you shall build siege works against the city that makes war with you, until it is subdued.” (19-20)

When besieging a city, it is forbidden to cut down fruit bearing trees in order to build fortifications. However, soldiers are permitted to cut down non- fruit bearing trees for that purpose. What is the rationale for this strange mitzvah?

In his typical fashion, the Sefer Ha-hinukh interprets this commandment from an educational perspective:

“This precept is designed to inculcate love of the good and beneficial. This will lead to the avoidance of destructiveness and the promotion of our wellbeing. This is the way of the pious and the worthy who love peace and rejoice in the wellbeing of all men, bringing them near to the Law…If they can help, they prevent any destruction with all the means at their disposal… Man is measured by his own yardstick. In other words, he is always affected by his own attitude, and he who desires good and rejoices in it, will always be granted to enjoy it.”

According to the Sefer Ha-hinukh, this mitzvah is intended to teach the value of constructive, rather than destructive action. It is the “pious” person who understands that one’s goals ought to be toward nurturing and building, as opposed to tearing down. This lesson is particularly poignant in the context of war when one is focused on the destruction of the enemy. Though battle often demands destructive action, this mitzvah aims to instill in us the lasting understanding that destruction does not represent an ideal way of life.

Shabbat Shalom.





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