Parshat Shoftim

Parshat Shoftim
6 Elul 5781
August 14, 2021
© Paul M. Hamburger

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we learn some important lessons about trees and, thereby, about ourselves. As symbols in Jewish literature, trees are used as a way of connecting us to nature and the world around us. Reports are that there are over 60,000 different species of trees and over 3 trillion trees on the globe – about 422 trees for each person. It is no surprise then that we connect so easily to tree-based analogies.

To illustrate how pervasive tree analogies are, consider how much we use them:

• We bark up the wrong tree and our bark is often worse than our bite.
• In this neck of the woods, we can’t always see the forest for the trees.
• But we do have to get to the root of the problem, particularly if we work in a grass roots movement.
• We log on and then log off.
• We go out on a limb, especially when we want to branch out or turn over a new leaf.
• We all know that mighty oaks from little acorns grow and, at the same time, little strokes fell great oaks; and that’s an old chestnut.
• Money doesn’t grow on trees; but apples do, and they don’t fall far from trees.
• There is a New Year for trees, a Tree of Knowledge, a fig tree with its fig leaves which Adam and Eve used for cover, and an olive tree whose branch showed Noah signs of life.
• Jacob brought cedar trees down to Egypt, Moses used a tree branch to sweeten the bitter waters at Marah, and after the people left Marah, there were 70 date palms corresponding to the 70 elders each of whom sat under another tree to praise G-d, all as explained in the Torah which is a Tree of Life for all who hold fast.
• Well, shiver me timbers, I better stop now before you make me walk the plank.
• Then I can keep talking so you can all sleep like a log.

With that, let’s take a closer look at what we can learn from this week’s parsha and, in particular, the laws associated with an army besieging a city. Devarim chapter 20 verses 19-20 read as follows:

יט כִּי־תָצוּר אֶל־עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא־תַשְׁחִית אֶת־עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו
גַּרְ זֶן כִּי מִמֶּוּנּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר. 

19. When you shall besiege a city for many days, 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 be besieged by you?

כ רַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר־תֵּדַע כִּי לֹא־עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית וְכָרָתָּוּ בָ נִיתָ מָצוֹר עַל־הָעִיר
אֲשֶׁר־הִוא עֹשָׂה עִמְּךָ מִלְחָמָה עַד רִ דְתָּהּ.

20. 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.

In short, fruit bearing trees cannot be destroyed to wage war because they provide sustenance. Those trees that do not bear fruit, however, may be cut down and used in battle.

As explained in Sefer Ha-Chinuch and the Talmud, we learn that the legal prohibition, known as Bal Tashchet, applies more broadly. We are not supposed to cause any wanton damage or loss just for the sake of it. Any purposeless destruction, even breaking a vessel or tearing clothing, is prohibited.

This hearkens back to the time when Adam was in Gan Eden and G-d said that the world was his to control and he was to exercise dominion over it. Not randomly, but purposefully. Expanding on the laws of property destruction, modern commentaries use these verses as a basis to explain the Torah’s views of environmental sensitivity. We need to care for and have respect for the environment which, of course, is part of G-d’s creation. In the beginning, G-d created; in the end, will man destroy?

Without taking anything away from these lessons, I would like to focus on the implications of the one line at the end of verse 19 — כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר. The Hebrew wording is unclear. Maybe it is a question: “For is the tree of the field a man that you should besiege it?” Maybe it is a statement: “For man is like the tree of the field [which you should consider] as you besiege it.”

As you would expect, the ambiguity has led to extensive commentary.

Rashi views this is as a rhetorical question – Is a tree of the field like a man such that you should cut it down? What did the tree ever do to you to deserve such destruction? Others emphasize the need to protect the trees because they will sustain us in our mission.

Regardless of the interpretation, it is notable that parshat Shoftim is always read during the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is a time for introspection as we head into the month of Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We prepare for these holy days by examining our past year with a view to improving ourselves for the future. Therefore, we need to understand what we can learn from parshat Shoftim that will help us in our preparations.

In 1959, the Rebbe released a public letter for Elul in which he wrote that G-d commanded Adam to conquer the Earth and have dominion over it. But, before we conquer the world, the Rebbe pointed out, we must conquer ourselves.

To understand how to conquer ourselves, consider what it means to besiege a city. During a siege, an attacking force encounters a city that cannot be taken by a quick assault. The city refuses to surrender. The attacking force surrounds the targeted city, blocks off the supply lines, and prevents any reinforcements from supporting the city. 

In chapter 9 of Tanya, our body is referred to as a “small city.” Just like two kings will fight over a city, each one wanting to conquer and control the other, our two souls (our G-dly soul and our animal soul) are fighting for control over us. Tanya teaches us how to conduct that battle and “win the war” as it were.

During Elul, therefore, we are like soldiers in the midst of a battle to conquer ourselves in preparation for the judgment coming in the month of Tishrei. Yet, as we besiege that small city, we need to be mindful not to uproot the “fruit trees” in our lives. What are they?

All trees share certain characteristics – they grow and display their stature or beauty and they can provide us with shade from the sun. A fruit tree is distinguished from others because it willingly gives something up of itself so that we can be sustained.

Latching on to that distinction, the Talmud in Taanit page 7a tells us that fruit bearing trees are like people who use their intelligence to produce something for others’ inspiration at their own expense; don’t cut down or reject those who have that ability to inspire and elevate.

In our lives, parents, grandparents, friends, colleagues and mentors gave of their fruits so willingly and allowed us to grow. Even their memories can continue to be a source of comfort and sustenance to our souls.

Don’t uproot those trees. Don’t look at others and dismiss them as unnecessary or unwanted. There is the famous myth of the “self-made” person. Parshat Shoftim comes to teach us that there is no such thing. Believing we are self-made is how we uproot and destroy those in our lives who allowed us to become who we are. Are not those who supported us also trees of the field? What right do we have to uproot and destroy those who have helped us along the way?

During Elul we should consider: What is there that we have done which we regret, for which we must express remorse, and about which we must resolve not to do in the future? Did we use hurtful words or acts to uproot those people who have helped us the most? Just like in a siege of a city at war where soldiers block off the supply lines and
prevent any reinforcements from supporting the city, we need to block off those negative traits that damage others and, ultimately, ourselves. Do not let negativity through and do not reinforce it.

Today is the 6th of Elul. What are some concrete specific steps we can take during the next 24 days as we tend to our own orchards so we can stand confidently at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ready to benefit from a truly spiritual experience?

Think of one thing that you can commit to for the rest of the month of Elul that is above and beyond what you already do. Here, I’m not talking about working out more
frequently or eating less (although those are not bad things). I mean something spiritual. 

Perhaps you could study something for a few minutes every day that you don’t otherwise study. A good idea is to learn the laws of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You can find great video classes or other learning content on as well as many other great websites.

Another idea is to give a little extra Tzedakah every day between now and Yom Kippur. In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe wrote letters encouraging his supporters to increase their Tzedakah and referred to Tzedakah as an act of planting seeds. You aren’t giving something away, you are planting something that will yield fruit in the future.

Speaking of planting something, if you want to give Tzedakah as a follow-up to this talk, maybe put a little aside each week and donate through JNF for trees in Israel which start at $18 for a tree certificate.

Volunteering is another great way to prepare yourself during Elul. Be a fruit bearing tree by giving of yourself to others. You will be amazed to see what your generosity of time will yield.

These are just a few suggestions. Pick something that resonates with you and motivates you to grow spiritually over the next few weeks. As it says in Pirkey Avot, citing the words of Yirmiyahu, if your deeds exceed your wisdom, you are like a tree planted by waters, spreading its roots toward the stream. The tree’s foliage shall be fresh.
It shall not worry in a year of drought. Nor shall it cease from yielding fruit.