From Shoftim to Bal Tashchit and beyond


Parashah Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)


Rabbi Ethan AdlerThis week’s portion is called Shoftim, from the first two words of the Parashah, Shoftim VeShotrim meaning “Judges and Officers.” In the narrative, Moses is reminding the Children of Israel to appoint judges and officers, so that all matters of life can be dealt with, utilizing the strictness of the officers, yet in concert with the fairness of judges. This portion is heavy duty, with enough laws, statutes and commandments to keep us busy until next week’s reading.

Somewhere toward the end of the reading, Moses expounds on the value of saving trees, and this is what he says: When you besiege a city a long time, you shall not destroy fruit-bearing trees by wielding an ax against them. You may eat from them, but you may not cut them down. For, after all, it is not the trees that you are fighting. However, trees that do not yield fruit, those you may cut down and destroy, as long as it is essential for continuing your siege strategy. This is not a direct quote from the Humash, but close enough.

So, what do we have here – a simple injunction against destroying fruit trees, even in times of war, when life and limb depend on pulling out all stops. Quite a statement, to be sure. And a commandment that we believe was actually in force as the Israelites entered Canaan and faced many battles, for many generations. Although, truth be told, we do have a documented case when this actually was not followed. In the book of Kings II, we find the ancient Israelites fighting the Moabites, a long-standing enemy. In Chapter 3, verse 19, we read, “You shall conquer every fortified town, and every splendid city; you shall fell every good tree and stop all wells of water.” (Bold added). Many interpreters understand that by “good” the text meant fruit-bearing. Scholars indicate that since these words were actually delivered by God, this exception to the rule is, of course, acceptable.

You may be interested to know that many authorities believe that this law was introduced to further explain another commandment made earlier in the Torah. In Genesis, Chapter 1, verse 28, God tells Adam and Eve to Pru Urvu, Umil-u Et Ha’aretz, VeChivsha – “Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it.” Lest we think we can subdue the land willy-nilly, we are reminded that even in the fiercest of battles, fruit trees are to be left alone. As the saying goes, when a tree is cut down, its voice of pain resounds throughout the world.

Now, as with everything else, the rabbis and teachers of old were not happy to just simply let this commandment exist as it is. Their understanding was, and always has been, that from a few words in the Torah, we can “derive” much more than the literal reading. So, from this prohibition of cutting down trees, Jewish tradition has developed a precept called Bal Tashchit – meaning “Do not destroy.” Of course, Bal Tashchit goes beyond trees and expands into other areas, such as the willful destruction of natural resources, vandalism, etc.

According to Bal Tashchit, one must not destroy anything that may be useful to others. The Talmud states, “One who tears his clothes, or smashes his household furniture in a fit of anger, or squanders his money is likened to an idolater. The Shulchan Aruch, a compilation of Jewish law, states that “Whoever breaks a utensil, or spoils any other thing that is for human enjoyment, breaks the commandment of ‘You shall not destroy.’ ” Other sources warn against putting bread on the ground where it may be stepped on, or throwing away any food that is edible. So, when your parents were telling you to finish your vegetables, they were knowingly or unknowingly carrying out the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit. And taking things just a step further, we find opinions that we should refrain from eating expensive foods, when cheaper food is just as good and healthy.

We see then, that Judaism is concerned with more than the protection of humans and animals. Our texts teach us that ultimately, we really do not own anything; everything that we possess rightfully belongs to God – even our food and our clothing. All of our possessions have been given to us on the condition that we make wise use of them. Psalm 24, verse 1 reflects on this theme. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants.” In a sense, we do not even have exclusive rights to our bodies. Thus, we may not take our own lives, or abuse our flesh in any way. Bal Tashchit also speaks against destroying flower gardens, defacing art objects, tearing pages from a book and, in general, destroying any object from which we or other people may derive pleasure or instruction.

So, when all is said and done, Bal Tashchit calls for lofty ideals. Creation is an ongoing process, and humans at all times have been partners with God, in safeguarding its potential. As someone once said – the world is God’s gift to us; what we do with it is our gift to God.

RABBI ETHAN ADLER is rabbi of Congregation Beth David in Narragansett.