I have learned quite a bit this year about trees thanks to Temple Jeremiah. We have replaced two of our dead trees with beautiful new trees and are in the process of planting a new tree just outside of Rabbi Cohen’s study. There is a lot that goes into the decision-making process and planning when planting trees. You need to make sure that not only does your new tree get plenty of water and nutrients, but the right amount of sun light, room to breathe, and, of course, the right climate conditions. As much as I would love to see some palm trees out front, I don’t think that they would make it through a typical Midwestern winter. In addition to learning about planting trees, I have a lot of experience taking down trees. Between my time as a camp director and owning a home, I have taken down a slew a trees for a variety of reasons. Oddly enough, taking out a tree is actually a lot more work and time consuming. Once a tree comes down, you have to dispose of it which is a pain in the butt.

I started thinking about these trees after looking through this week’s parsha, Shof’tim. 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 our social justice programs. And the Torah and rabbinic commentaries are filled to the brim with messages of justice. However, I am not sure how many of us know that this week’s portion includes a section about not destroying trees.

[19] 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? [20] 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 trees 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 viewpoint beyond the pragmatic view and focuses 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.” He 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 thoughts on removing trees any easier. I am certain that these trees are not causing harm to anyone. They are merely a source of frustration as they need to be removed. And like most frustrating things in life, I approach this situation as calmly and collected as possible. As Mussar teaches, you need to try to keep the match separated from the spark in order to prevent something becoming bigger than anticipated. I need to keep my emotions separate in this decision-making process. Please join us this week, and every Friday in August as we enjoy ice cream following Kabbalat Shabbat worship.

Shabbat Shalom,

Danny Glassman