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    Trees & the ethics of war – Shof’tim

    An important chapter in the Jewish ethic of war comes in this week’s portion where we are warned against harming the trees in the course of laying siege to a city (Deut. 20:19-20).

    The Torah is not often as sarcastic as it is here. It basically says, “What have the trees ever done to you that you want to hurt them too?” The actual words are, “Is the tree of the field man, that you should besiege it?”

    What the Torah is saying recalls the story of the childhood of Moses.

    As a baby he was saved by the waters of the Nile. Hence when the time came for the Ten Plagues it was Aaron, not Moses, who brought the plagues that affected the river. Otherwise he would, to mix our metaphors, be biting the hand that fed him.

    In relation to the trees in our sidra, we have to remember what the trees have done for us: they gave us fruit, shade, support, wood and so much else.

    Have they done us any harm, that we should wreak vengeance on them as well as on human beings? It is bad enough that human beings need to become involved in war.

    The Jewish ethic of course insists that we do our very best not to bring harm and destruction on human beings. Our enemies mock our concern for human life. If they cannot understand why we value humanity, they will certainly not appreciate our concern for trees.

    But if we abandoned our ethics we would not be able to live with ourselves.

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