Secondary Sources: Our Relationship to Nature – HS, A

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Secondary Sources: Relationship to Nature

Deuteronomy 20:18-19

19 When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?

יטכִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר:

20 However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission.

כרַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר תֵּדַע כִּי לֹא עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית וְכָרָתָּ וּבָנִיתָ מָצוֹר עַל הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר הִוא עֹשָׂה עִמְּךָ מִלְחָמָה עַד רִדְתָּהּ:


D’Var Torah

Harriet M. Levine, Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY

… These verses toward the end of the parashah, Deuteronomy 20:19-20, form the basis for the mitzvahbal tashchit, “do not destroy.” While the verses themselves deal specifically with cutting down trees during war, the Sages extended their meaning to cover all forms of wasteful destruction. They taught that anyone who deliberately wastes our resources, either natural or man-made, violates the law.

For over 3,000 years Jews have been concerned about the environment. Although these instructions are specifically directed to the care of fruit trees during war, the lesson gleaned from them has far-reaching implications for life on this planet. Our ancestors understood that life depends upon preserving the land. Although they didn’t use words like “ecology,” “global warming,” or “environmental crisis,” they clearly understood and respected these concepts.

The tree in the Torah text is read by the Sages as a metaphor. They understood that the prohibition to destroy fruit trees implies that it is forbidden to destroy anything that was beneficial to humankind. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah tells us that a tree may be cut down if it damages other trees or causes harm to neighboring fields. According to Maimonides, the Torah only forbids willful destruction. We are not precluded from making use of God’s creations but are warned against unnecessarily destroying gifts of nature. Needless cutting down of a fruit-bearing tree is forbidden not only in wartime, but at all times. Similarly, we may not destroy or waste anything useful, whether it be food or money or clothing.

In the creation story in Genesis 1:28, humankind is granted dominion over the earth. The same biblical passage that gives us this dominion also requires that we care for the earth; we are reminded that even as we till the earth, we must also preserve it. God’s command to “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth” gives us the responsibility to guard the world. Because God created the natural world, it is sacred. It is ours on loan, to be used and cared for. We are granted both dominion and stewardship of our world; therefore we are not to pollute its water or air or waste its precious resources.

As a child in religious school, one of the first stories I heard was that of Honi and his planting of the carob tree. When asked why he was planting a tree that would not bear fruit until long after his death, he replied that when he came into the world he found carob trees that had been planted by those who came before him, so he was doing the same for his descendants. It’s a simple story that we tell every Tu BiSh’vat, but one that teaches an age-old truth.

Today’s environmentalists raise the same concern as Honi. Since the mid-twentieth century, we have become aware that restoring our planet’s diminishing resources is a crucial issue. The destruction of tropical forests, lumbering without reforestation, burning of land, and the general wasting of other natural resources will leave future generations with diminished resources. Just over forty years ago, author Rachel Carson warned of the dangerous effects of our lifestyle on the environment. Silent Spring spoke of our reckless attempt to control our environment by the use of pesticides and warned that destroying the balance of nature would ultimately do more harm than good.

Since Carson’s best-selling publication, others have written on the same subject. Just ten years ago, Al Gore, in his book Earth In the Balance, wrote of his conviction that only radical rethinking of our relationship with nature could save our ecology. Whether or not we believe that we must save our resources because God has commanded us to do so, we cannot ignore what we have done to our world or sit idle without trying to correct the mistakes we’ve made.

Judaism does not separate people from nature. We’re taught that the earth is one unit, just as God is one. Whatever affects plant and animal life affects humans as well. If we destroy other kinds of living things on this earth, we are also destroying ourselves. The most important lessons we can teach our children are that not only do all living things depend upon each other, but also what we do today affects what the world will be like tomorrow. Each generation is linked to the next by its actions. Like Honi, we depend on what those who came before us did, as our children will depend upon us. Whether it is wartime or peacetime, we must care for the natural resources entrusted to us.


Your Guide

Throughout the Bible, we are urged to respect creation and not waste or destroy. Living things range from the human being to the simplest of species, and the rich variety of nature is to be cherished. In addition, Jewish tradition is distinctly linked to trees and to water; in fact, our Torah is referred to as the “Tree of Life.” Jewish tracts entreat us time and again to respect and enhance trees and water.

  • Torah has a multitude of verses regarding the care of our resources. How do we decide which ones to follow? Do we pick and choose only those that affect us personally, or do we move beyond our own neighborhoods, cities, and even countries for the betterment of all humankind?
  • How, in this age of technology, can we ensure that we don’t do more damage to our natural resources-our drinking water, our rivers, the soil, or the air?
  • When our military goes into another country to liberate it, as we have recently done in Iraq, do we have any obligations to the people of that country regarding the protection of their natural resources?


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