Krystal and I have a family that we have become incredibly close with since starting at Jeremiah almost six years ago. It’s a crazy story which I’ll save for another drash, but they were our landlords for about nine months. Krystal and Heather are as thick as thieves. Linda (or Mor Mor as everyone calls her), Heather’s mom, is like an extension of Krystal’s parents. Emery (their daughter) and Eden are BFFs. Joe has always been willing to lend a hand or joke with us about whatever hair brained idea he has about moving to the country to open a commune. He has even committed to moving it close to a Jewish community, so I can continue as a Jewish professional. One thing we don’t joke about, however are these twenty-five-foot pine trees in front of my house that inch taller and thicker every day. We have been plotting their demise for over a year now. “What if we contact the village about using them during Christmas,” Mor Mor quips. “All we need is a rope and a saw,” exclaims Joe. Even Krystal’s family has gotten into the planning. Her uncle was choreographing a three-stage approach which includes cutting the trees down, hauling the wood up to his mother’s farm to season, and then splitting for firewood for everyone to use. Each discussion makes me incredibly anxious, knowing at the end of the day, I am the one who has to execute all of this.
I started thinking about these trees even more after looking through this week’s parsha, Shoftim. Most individuals probably recall the famous line contained in this parsha, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” (tzedek, tzedek tirdof) (Deut. 16:20). I figured congregants at Temple Jeremiah know better than anyone about the pursuit of justice, especially thinking about the wide breadth of social justice programs we do. And the Torah and rabbinic commentaries are filled to the brim with the messages of justice. However, I am not sure how many of us knew about this week’s portion including a section about not destroying trees.
 When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?  Only tress that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. (Deut. 20:19-20)
While these instructions deal specifically with tress during a siege, interpreters have extended it to cover all forms of wasteful destruction under the principle of bal tashchit or “do not destroy.” “Anyone who deliberately breaks dishes, tears clothing, wrecks a building, clogs up a fountain or wastes food violates the law of bal tashchit.” (Hullin 7b; Tosafot Baba Kamma 115b; Avodah Zarah 30b; Kiddushin 32a) While most every commentator seems to agree with the emphasis against wasteful destruction, there are differences of opinion on the justification for such prohibitions. Moses ibn Ezra takes a pragmatic approach to cutting down trees. He asserts that trees produce fruit for food which humans need for survival. Therefore, cutting down a tree hurts humankind. Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi of Yanof presents a view point beyond the pragmatic view, focusing on the spiritual foundation for not destroying trees. Jacob ben Isaac asks, “Why does the Torah compare a tree to human beings? Because, just as human beings have the power to grow within them, so do trees. And just as human beings bear children, so do trees bear fruits. When a human being is hurt, the painful cries are heard throughout the world, and when a tree is chopped down, its cries are heard from one end of the world to the other.” Jacob ben Isaac uses the tree to create sympathy and awareness of all living things. All life is created by God, thus all existence must be respected and nurtured.
I cannot tell you that reading this parsha and associated commentary has made my decision on potentially removing the pines trees any easier. I am certain that these trees are not causing harm to anyone. They are merely a source of personal frustration. And like most frustrating things in life, I approach this situation as calm and collected as possible. As Mussar teaches, you need to try to keep the match separated from the spark in order to prevent something from becoming bigger than anticipated. I need to keep my emotions separate in this decision-making process. I’ll keep everyone posted of my progress as we inch closer to the High Holy Days. If you are a lover of nature I invite you to join us at Clarkson Park in Northfield this Friday evening for Shabbat in the Park followed by ice cream sundaes!