By Rabbi Y. Dov Krakowski
One of the many fascinating Mitzvos in this week’s Sedra centers on fruit trees and the requirements of war. We are told that when Klal-Yisroel, over the course of laying siege to an enemy city, will find it necessary to build fortifications, it must first use the wood from non-fruit producing trees. The Passuk gives the reason as being Ki Headam Eitz Hasadeh… (literally translated “is the tree of the field a man that it should be besieged by you?”).
While the Mephorshim grapple with the meaning of this sentence, the Ibn-Ezra explains it to mean that since we derive our sustenance in part from fruits of the trees we mustn’t cut down such trees. The Ramban concurs with the Ibn-Ezra, and notes that this Mitzva doesn’t mean that we cannot cut down such trees when needed. The text is instead indicating a definite preference that we use non-fruit bearing trees whenever possible. This the Ramban deduces from the fact that the Passuk says that we may only cut down a tree that we know bears no fruits for battle related needs. The Ramban explains that since the text doesn’t merely say that only non-fruit bearing trees may be cut down, but rather that only trees that we know not to bear fruits may be felled, it is evident that it is coming to teach us that it is only a preference.
The Seforno, however, views this Passuk as coming to each us a different lesson. He says that the reason the Passuk stresses a tree that we know has no fruit is in order to tell us that even if it really is an apple tree, but we know that it no longer bears fruit, then even though it is theoretically a fruit tree it may still be cut for war purposes.
There is a very elementary question here: if Klal-Yisroel is in the midst of fighting a war, and in war Klal-Yisroel will take many a human life, why is it davka in this context that the Torah tells us to spare fruit trees because of their potential ability to help sustain human life?
If we adopt the Ramban’s approach (that the Torah is just telling us that there is a preference for non-fruit bearing trees as a source for fortification materials) perhaps we could explain that the Torah is coming to teach us an important lesson about the value of human life. While Klal-Yisroel is in the midst of fighting a war, while Klal-Yisroel has a license to kill, Hashem comes to command us to be diligent with regard even to items merely related to the human existence. War is by definition a confusing time (The expression ‘the fog of war’ expresses well the ambiguity and uncertainty that accompany military operations). At a time when we may not understand why Hashem has commanded us to annihilate a particular nation or nations (the Conquest of the Land), Hashem is telling us not to lose focus. In circumstances under which we can easily lose sight of the importance of human life, Hashem reminds us of its centrality – by telling us to be careful, even with things indirectly related to it – fruit trees.
A very Warm Good Shabbos, Rabbi Y. Dov Krakowski
To contact the Rav: Rabbikrakowski@gmail.com or 054-345-1553 (between 9-9:30am, 8:30-10pm and 45 minutes prior to shkia).
This week’s issue is sponsored as a zechus for the continued Refuah Shelaima of Rivka bas Yael, Bsshch”y.