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Torah protect the trees #592

Parashat Shoftim: Deuteronomy 20:19

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time...
You must not destroy its trees.”

Torah protect the trees

One of the greatest environmental stories in Jewish tradition revolves around Choni haMagel, or Choni the Circle Maker.

According to the Talmud, one day, as Choni was journeying along the road, he noticed a man planting a carob tree.

He asked, “How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Choni then asked: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?”

The man replied: “I found already-grown carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me, and so I too plant these for my children.”

Choni sat down to eat, and suddenly sleep overcame him. And there, surrounded by a rock formation, the Talmud says he slept for seventy years. 

When he awoke, he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “No, I am his grandson.”

Choni then caught sight of his ass, which had given birth to several generations of mules, and returned home, where he died soon after.

The Talmudic story of Choni the Circle maker is often told in February to coincide with Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year. It teaches us, in part, that the earth which surrounds us predates us, and will continue long after we are gone.

It is also quoted within Jewish study to remind us that often it takes years for dreams to come true, sometimes two or three generations.

The story of Choni comes to mind this week as we reflect upon the Torah’s emphasis on the environment, trees in particular. 

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Shoftim — Judges — and it is there to remind us that we must judge each other fairly, without bias or prejudice.

Yet, later in the parashah, the Torah takes a “green turn” as it reminds us that there must be a just relationship between us and the planet. 

In the opening chapters of the Torah, God reminds humanity that the world is a gift, and that it is our responsibility to “toil it and watch over it” (Genesis 2:15).

So it is no surprise that the Torah devotes time this week, in its discussion about the ramifications of war, to instruct us about what we owe to the planet that sustains us.

Notes the Torah, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Trees are not people, we are taught: they are there to help sustain the world.

War, the Torah teaches, is destructive in nature. It is why we as a people pride ourselves upon the pursuit of peace and truth, rather than any ability to fight and win wars. 

The Torah recognizes that, after war, life must endure. Trees are a source of wood. They produce fruit, food, and shade.

Therefore, we must not engage in a “scorched earth” policy, for the sake of the future, and the pursuit of peace.

And this not just true from a physical perspective. It relates as well to the chain of spiritual life which passes from generation to generation. Just as Choni learned, what we plant today can take generations to bear fruit. This is true from both a literal and a spiritual perspective.

The values we plant in our children and grandchildren connect us across generations. As Rabbi Rachel Barenblat notes, “This planting and harvesting connects us across the generations: as my grandparents planted seeds which bear fruit in my adult choices, I plant seeds for the grandchildren, and the students-of-my-students, who I may never know.” 

Is it any wonder that within a Judaic context recent events around the world should give us cause for concern?

When fires ravage the Amazon Forest, or hurricanes of unprecedented ferocity level entire islands, we need to ask ourselves, “are we serving as good caretakers of the future?”

Are we worried only about our immediate prosperity, or are we planting seeds for those to enjoy seventy years from now?

Maimonides, one of our greatest Sages, noted that this week’s Biblical passage “[not] only applies to trees, but also whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, destroys a building, blocks a wellspring of water, or destructively wastes food.” 

This is a basis, within Judaism, for ecological responsibility.

In a world where we’re willing to sacrifice moral integrity in favor of immediate profit, perhaps it’s time to pause and think about these instructions regarding the future. Indeed, if we continue to assault the environment without tending to its roots, the entire foundation of our civilization may very well collapse.

As Choni learned through this famous Talmudic tale, we are only as good as the future that we plant. And that goes for our sons, daughters, and grandchildren.

We are warming the earth to the point of no return. Let us therefore remember the trees. Let us therefore protect the sacred gifts of air, land, and water. Let us nurture our environment, so that it may bear fruit for generations to come.

In a former life, I worked as a communications consultant for a Canadian environmental study. One day, while in northern Canada, a First Nations chief put his arm around my shoulders. 

He surveyed the sacred forest, which he explained was gifted to humanity by the creator. And he reminded me, “We do not inherit the environment from our elders, we borrow it from our children.”

So how much are we borrowing now? How much will be left for our children?

It begins with a simple instruction contained in this week’s Torah portion. It reminds us that our human pursuits — often immediate and passionate — must include protecting God’s creation.

Friends, in so many ways we have been sleeping for the past seventy years, if not longer. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s time for us, and for those who guide us, to finally wake up?

Is it fair to borrow this much from our children?

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780