An important statement about the rights of trees is found in this week’s sidra where we read that when there is a siege against a city, the trees must not be cut down.
“Is the tree of the field human, that you should besiege it?” asks the Torah (Deut. 21:19). In other words, what has the tree ever done to you that you should vent your anger on it?
Saadiah Gaon says, “It is foolish to consider a tree an enemy. It is senseless to vent one’s hostility on trees, since they have not done anything wrong by growing on enemy territory”.
But there are rights and rights. Comparing the rights of human beings and those of nature, the rights of human beings are superior. God placed nature in the world for the use of man, but not to control man. If there is a clash, genuine human need must prevail.
An example of this issue is a problem once faced in a Sydney cemetery. Hitherto undeveloped areas of this cemetery contained rare species of trees and vegetation.
If conserving these species required serious curtailing of spaces for burial, there would be severe human hardship. If the issue were commercial development, the champions of nature would have a point. But what is at stake is genuine human need.
The environmentalists have to be prepared to be fair. The Sefer HaChinnuch says, “No living thing, not even a mustard seed, is so insignificant that it may be destroyed without reasonable cause” – but surely “reasonable cause” includes the respectful burial of the dead.