When you besiege a city for many days, in waging war against it to capture it, you will not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them; for it is from them that you eat, and you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field, a man, that it should be besieged by you? (Devarim 20:19)
כִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר:
In the creation narrative of Bereishit, there are seven mentions of trees: from the bringing forth of trees in the world; to the tree of life and tree of knowledge; to the hiding place for Adam and Chava. The leitmotif of the tree’s power to seduce, to distance, to captivate is carried through the rest of the Bible, as it appears at key turning points in the Jewish journey. Trees appear in Joseph’s dream, before he comes to power; in the plagues of Egypt, as the Jews ready for exit; as material for Moshe’s staff. They appear as material for the mishkan; for sacrificial fuel; a place for hanging; bird nests; forbidden worship; and, of course, in the source above. Trees appear at moments of tension, of junctions in life, when it feels like, really, things could go either way, for good or the bad.
I see this source in Shofetim, this week’s parsha, as hearkening back to the tree in Gan Eden, which grew out of the earth to cover man’s shame. Here, in Shofetim, the trees come at a moment of tension, of warfare, of being distanced from family and perhaps forgetting what the fight is all about. The trees are a reminder of how to act when in battle. For the verses could just as well have given us an injunction without a glossing explanation.
Ethically, environmentally, it makes sense not to raze trees when you’re at battle. After all, the fight is to gain control of the tree-growing ground and if victorious, you too will want to eat from those trees. It is the seemingly rhetorical question of whether “הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר” — a tree of the field is a man to be submitted to siege — that piques my interest further. As we enter now, at the start of Elul, a period of time in which we talk about God being “in the field,” that is, when God is in one way most accessible to us, I wonder more about Shofetim’s tree in the field and about this time of transition.
The wording is too ambiguous for it not to invite further study: is a man a tree of a field, or a tree of a field a man? And why should we need to compare a tree to a person in order to recognize that its life should not be hacked away? Although the standard translation is as I have presented above, that is, “Is a tree of the field, a man?” one can also read it as “Is man a tree of the field?” and indeed the Hebrew word order encourages this reading.
On Rosh Chodesh Elul, we start thinking about Rosh Hashanah and back at the past year. What a year. How rooted am I? Can I feel the canopy of God’s protection? When I go into battle now for what’s most important, am I going to make sure to only war against what is needed and not do collateral damage? Lives can be so fleeting, but man is a tree in the field, where God is right now.
Homer, in the Iliad, 6.116, compares the ephemerality of a human life and a tree’s life:
Even as are the generations of leaves, such are those also of men. As for the leaves, the wind scatters some upon the earth, but the forest, as it burgeons, puts forth others when the season of spring is come; even so of men one generation springs up and another passes away.
Our lives are part of the cycle of nature, says this poetic trope. Indeed, so too Isaiah, 65:22, exclaims, “For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.” One might find this discouraging, but I think within this is much joy and hopefulness about human behavior. Within the bustling and ever transitioning phemerality is a place of tranquility.
For when the gusts of wind blowing the leaves off the tree seem overly turbulent, as perhaps many of us are finding the current times, I take succor from the manner in which the Erythraean Sibyl, a Greek female oracle, would arrange her prophecies. She would write her oracles on leaves, which would be arranged in a fan shape so that the first letters of each leaf’s inscription would be peeking out, spelling a word of its own. This acronym would make sense to the reader, but the true meaning of the prophecies would be hidden in the folds of the leaves.
As the leaves themselves formed natural masks for the true meaning of what the Sibyl had inscribed of her truth, so too, regarding the smallness of what I bear conscious spectacle to in this world. I understand very little but I’m aware that under the folds of the leaves that flutter by me at an alarming rate, there is much sense.
I find Shofetim’s words encouraging — let us not hold ourselves under siege for our mistakes in the past (the Garden of Eden) and for our fear of our ephemerality (also the Garden of Eden). The battle ahead is tiring but this is a period of growth. Our mission, as we go out to conquer the world in front of us, is to keep all we can growing in the right direction; to plant trees in the right place; to nurture good growth. If we do that, the leaves will fall where they will, and we will eat the fruit of our labors in good conscience.