When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? Deuteronomy 20:19
The Torah portion for this week is Shoftim, which means "judges," from Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 51:12-52:12.
As the Israelites were about to conquer the land of Canaan, Moses taught them the laws of going to war. One law forbade them to cut down any fruit-bearing trees. Non-fruit-bearing trees, however, were permissible to cut down. Why did the Torah differentiate between these two types of trees, and why was the Bible concerned with trees during wartime in the first place?
In this verse, we also read, "Are the trees people . . . " However, literally translated from the original Hebrew, this reads, "Man is a tree . . ." Trees are a symbol of people, and just as there are trees that give fruit and those that don't, so, too, are there people who contribute fruit and those who do not.
I recently watched a short video clip about giving. The video depicts a man going through his daily life, sprinkling his routine with small acts of kindness. He sees a leak coming from a building and places a dying plant under the leak. He passes by a mother and young daughter begging for charity and gives them what he has. He helps a middle-aged woman pushing a food wagon to lift the heavy contraption over the street curb and onto the corner where she sells food.
These are just a few of the good deeds that this man does every day. A voice is heard asking the audience: "And for all this what does he receive?"
The answer: Nothing. He won't get any richer, more famous, or receive any applause. However, the video continues to show the man going through his daily routine, only this time, the dying plant placed under the leak has sprouted leaves. The daughter who usually sat begging with her mother is dressed in a school uniform and gives the man a thankful smile. The lady selling food from her wagon is visibly happier and gives a customer extra food, passing on the feeling of benevolence she undoubtedly picked up from the man who helped her out.
This man is a "tree that bears fruit." He contributes to the world at his own expense, and as a result, makes the world a more beautiful place. A tree that doesn't bear fruit may provide us with shade, but it doesn't cost the tree anything, and so it is less valued.
Through the commandment to honor fruit-bearing trees, the Torah is teaching us that we are to value "fruit-bearing people" and to strive to become one ourselves.
Consider how we can bear fruit this week. Maybe we can help out a stranger, give a little more charity, or be extra kind to someone. A little kindness sows seeds that can bring about even more fruit in the future.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President