“The ‘Zamir’ of the Powerful” and Growth after War

  1. For Man is the Tree of the Field – Vital Growth Emerging from the Ground

Given the terrible costs of war (in every sense of the word), we must attempt to understand the kind of growth that can follow on the heels of destruction and extirpation – that is, we must the world to come, which follows life in this world. This is said mainly about young lives that were uprooted before they had a chance to yield their fruits fully. To that end, we must study Maharal’s explanations of man’s fruits in his world:

It seems that (man’s) name teaches about something uniquely his, that is singular about man and nothing else. This is that he is called “adam” because he is dust from the ground (“adama”). But now we must ask: aren’t all other creations from the ground? Why is only man called “adam” due to the fact that he was created of the earth? The idea of man relates strongly to the earth; this is because the earth is unique in that it has potential and it brings to fruition all of those things that grow from it: plants, trees, and everything else. It has all of these in potential. This is the idea of man: he has potential and his perfection comes to fruition. Thus, his name is apropos of what he shares with the earth, namely, that it alone brings potential into reality through fruits and plants and everything else it has. So too man’s potential is brought to fruition. It is for this reason that man’s perfection is also called “fruit.” (Tiferet Yisrael ch. 3)

          What is the fate of these young lives that were uprooted before they could yield their fruits? Is their share in the next world deficient? Maharal explains the Gemara above to mean that they share is not diminished and premature death does not prevent the transition from potential to actual or the earning of life in the next world:

But do not misconstrue these words to deny perfection to one who cannot bring his perfection to fruition, who departed this world before he was able to realize his potential. We do not deny him the next world at all if he had prepared for perfection but died and was unable to realize his perfection, as the Sages say (Berakhot 6a): if one thought to do a mitzva but was coerced, he is rewarded as though he performed

the mitzva. (Tiferet Yisrael ch. 3)[1]

  1. The Value of Growth in the Lives of Those who Fall Sanctifying God’s Name

This is true in particular about those who fall sanctifying God’s name in Jewish wars. The place of the wholly righteous is reserved for them:

As was the case of R. Yosef b. of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, [who] became ill and fell into a trance. When he recovered, his father asked him, ‘What did you see?’ ‘I saw a topsy-turvy world’, he replied, ‘the superior underneath and the inferior on top’ ‘My son’, he observed, ‘you saw a clear world. And how are we [situated] there?’ ‘Just as we are here, so are we there. And I heard them saying, "Happy is he who comes here with his learning in his hand." And I also heard them saying, "Those martyred by the empire, no man can stand within their enclosure."’ Who are these [martyrs]? Shall we say, R. Akiba and his companions? is that because they were martyrs of the State and nothing else? Rather [he meant] the martyrs of Lod. (Pesachim 50a)

Rambam rules accordingly about the stature of those killed by the prevailing power, those who fell to Israel’s enemies, sanctifying God’s name:

These are the martyrs of the empire, and there is no greater height than theirs. Of them it is written: “For Your sake we were killed all day; we have been considered as sheep for slaughter” (Tehillim 44:23). And of them it is stated: “Gather My saints together, those who have made a covenant with Me through sacrifice” (ibid. 50:5). (Laws of Torah Principles 5:4)

          Maharal explained the significance of this great stature in several instances:

For the martyrs of the empire gave their lives to sanctify God’s name, and by this one becomes completely other to the material world, to the point that he gives himself up to death, to be removed from the world, for the sake of His great name. Therefore, no creature can stand in their enclosure, for there is no connection between this transcendent level and others who incline toward this world while they are within it.[2]

          Those who fell to sanctify God’s name rise above the wings of god’s Shekhina, the source of existence, the root of being, and from there they shine and illuminate like the brilliance of the firmament, where they influence our world and our growth.

  1. World Growth and National Consciousness as a Result of War

War itself, considered the epitome of devastation and destruction, occasionally contains elements of constructiveness and growth, like a tree whose growth can be enhanced by pruning away branches. This is why the time of redemption is called “et ha-zamir,” which literally means “the time of singing” but can also mean “the time of pruning,” as the Midrash explains:

“The time of zamir has come” – the time has come for Israel to be redeemed; the time has come for the orlah to be pruned; the time has come for Egypt to be pruned the time has come for their deities to be uprooted, as it is stated: “and I will do justice to the gods of Egypt…”

“The time of zamir has come” – the time has come for the orlah to be pruned; the time has come for the Canaanites to be pruned; the time has come for Eretz Yisrael to be distributed to the Israelites…

“The time of zamir has come” – the time has come for the orlah to be pruned; the time has come for the wicked to be shattered…; the time has come for the Temple to be built, as it is stated (Ovadia 1): “The rescuers ascended Mount Zion…” (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 2:29-32

          One who contemplates this midrash will realize that the song (zemira) of redemption is bound up with the pruning (zemira) of the wicked in order to make space for a repaired world. This is how Rav Kook explained it in context of World War I:

When there is a great war in the world, the power of the Messiah awakens. “The time of zamir has come,” “the zamir of the powerful”; the wicked are obliterated, the world is intoxicated, and “the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land.” The individuals who die an unjust death in the violent upheaval of war possess the quality of the righteous, whose death is an atonement. They ascend through the root of life, and their life’s essence brings a greater good that is a blessing and benefit to the new world that is being built in every meaning and sense. Then, when the war ends, the world is reinvigorated with a new spirit, and the footsteps of the Messiah become more apparent. As extensive and devastating as the war, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is so is the depth of yearning for the footsteps of the Messiah within it… “Master of war, Sower of righteousness, Nurturer of salvation, Creator of healing, revered in praise, Lord of wonders, Who continually renews the work of creation, day after day: make a new light shine on Zion, and may we all be worthy of its light soon.” (Orot, War §1)[3]

          The zemira, the pruning away through war of the powerful who prevent redemption clears a path for goodness to be manifest. But there is another perspective. War amongst the nations sometimes stems from the outbreak of opposing essences and ideas, and sometimes war originates in other things, but once war begins there develop conflicts between opposing national and cultural ideas.

          War causes every national idea to profoundly refine itself and empower itself. This empowerment continues after the battles have calmed and nurtures, sharpens, and raises national consciousness to where it had not been before. When such a war affects the nation of Israel directly, and its idea is strengthened within the world, the power of the Messiah is awakened.

          Yet even the righteous individuals who die an unjust death, who rise up to the source of life and being, continue to nurture existence: “They ascend through the root of life, and their life’s essence brings a greater good that is a blessing and benefit to the new world that is being built in every meaning and sense.”

          We conclude with a prayer to our Father in heaven in the wake of the most recent war and in as a continuation of the words of our holy Sages: may God make this time one of mercy and love, a time of zamir, when what holds us back is removed, when the wicked are shattered, and when the Temple is rebuilt, as it states: “The rescuers ascended Mount Zion to mete justice out to the mountain of Esav – and dominion was God’s.”

Sing aloud, O nations, of His people; for He avenges the blood of His servants, renders vengeance to His adversaries, and makes expiation for the land of His people.  (Devarim 32:43)


[1] Maharal continues: “Because he did not realize his potential for perfection he is like land that did not produce fruit, leaving things as unrealized potential.”

[2] Derashot Maharal, “Drush al Ha-Torah.” In Chidushei Agadot III, on Bava Batra 65, Maharal explained more fully: “Thus, fortunate is one who has this virtue of coming [to his Maker] while he clings to non-material divine qualities. This stature, which belongs to martyrs who gave their lives to sanctify God’s name, is unattainable by others, because these martyrs are completely transcendent, to the point that no one can connect to them, for they are entirely with God’s Shekhina.” See Rav Kook’s essay “Al Bamoteinu Chalalim” in Ma’amarei Ha-Re’aya I, p. 93.

[3] See also Igrot Ha-Re'aya II p. 312 and Otzarot Ha-Re’aya p. 938.

  1. “For Man is the Tree of the Field” – The Value of Growth against the Backdrop of War[1]
    1. For Man is the Tree of the Field

The Torah compares man to the tree of the field. The context is the commandment not to harm fruit trees during war:

When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. Eat from it, but do not cut it down. For man is the tree of the field, so that it may capitulate to your siege. Only the trees that you know are not for food you may destroy and cut down, so that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you,

until it falls. (Devarim 20:19-20)[2]

          This verse raises several difficulties – it is not immediately clear why it equates man with the tree of the field and why specifically in context of destruction at a time of war. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the verse is a rhetorical question:

“For man is the tree of the field” – the word “ki” serves to pose a question: “Is man the tree of a field that it should capitulate to your siege and be afflicted with hunger and thirst like the people of the city?

Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) has difficulty accepting the interpretation that this is a rhetorical question. He is inclined to read it as a statement, explaining that the commandment to protect the tree teaches man the value of trees, the fruits of which revitalize man:

In my opinion there is no need for all of this. Rather, this is the explanation: “Eat from it, but do not cut it down, for man is the tree of the field” means that human life is the tree of the field. Similarly: “he is taking the soul as a pledge” (Devarim 24:6) means “he is taking his life as a pledge.” “Do not cut it down” is connected to “so that it may capitulate to your siege.” Thus, do not destroy a fruit tree, which is a person’s life. Rather, it is permitted to eat from it and forbidden to destroy so that the city will capitulate to you in the siege. The evidence that this explanation is accurate is that it says “cut down so you may build bulwarks.”[3]

Yet this interpretation is not compatible with the statement of the Sages in the Talmud that implies that it is permitted to destroy fruit trees for a siege and its needs. Ramban explains, therefore, that the Torah’s commandment merely sets priorities: to the extent possible, non-fruit-bearing trees should be cut down before fruit trees:

But the Sages’ opinion (Bava Kama 91b) is that it is permitted to cut down trees to build a siege. The Torah stated “Only the trees that you know are not for food…” to give precedence and to say that non-fruiting trees precede fruit trees. (Ramban on Devarim 20:18)

          Yet the purpose of the mitzva, according to Ramban in light of the Sages’ view, is to caution man against destruction that is not necessary for the war and its objectives:

Thus, in their opinion, the rationale of this section is that the Torah cautioned “do not destroy its trees” – do not cut them down destructively, not for the purposes of the siege, like the custom of army encampments. The reason is that combatants destroy things in the city and the surrounding territory to help them defeat it, similar to what Scripture states: “fell all good trees and block all water springs” (II Melakhim 3:19). But you shall not do so destructively; rather you shall have faith in God that He will place it in your hands. “For man is the tree of the field” – eat from them and live; the city will eventually “capitulate to your siege,” meaning that you will be sustained by this tree after you conquer the city. Also, even during the campaign, you may do so “so that it capitulates to your siege,” i.e., for this you may destroy and cut down. You are permitted to cut it down to build a siege or to destroy it until it falls, since sometimes such destruction is necessary to conquer, such as if the city dwellers go out and collect wood from it, or they hide in the forests to fight you, or the trees provide cover and shelter to the city from catapults. (Ramban to Devarim 20:18)[4]

  1. R. Bachya (ad loc.) adds another dimension: this mitzva teaches about the unique way that the Jewish people wage ware. The nation of Israel is different from all other nations. When it wages war, which entails destruction and wreckage, it must meticulously assess what must be wrecked and cut down as part of the war’s needs, and what is unnecessary and constitutes demolition for its own sake, and thus ought not to be destroyed:

In my opinion, “for man” is a continuation of “do not cut it down”; the explanation of the verse is that the tree of the field is not like a man who opposes you during a siege. And it is not the actions of a wise and understanding nation to needlessly destroy something so worthy, and therefore you should not expend energy to cut down a tree of the field; rather you should protect it from destruction and damage and take benefit from it. This [is the meaning of] 'from it you will eat,' and if you destroy it you will damage and take away its benefit.

  1. The Deeper Understanding of the Value of Fruit Trees in Context of War
  2. R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin teaches a fundamental principle of interpretation: in order to understand the root and essence of something in the Torah, one must examine the first time it is mentioned in the Torah and interpret it in that context:

I have a tradition that for every single matter, the root of it lies at the place where the word first appears in the Torah.[5]

          As noted earlier, the duty to protect trees is mentioned only in context of war, even though it is occasionally necessary to cut down trees for various reasons during normal life.[6] This raises a question: what can we learn from the fact that the mitzva to protect trees appears in the specific context of warfare and not the context of normal life?

          To sharpen this question, we note that this mitzva, according to Rambam (and based on the words of the Sages), is a precedent for any form of destruction – of living or nonliving thing, during war and during civilian life:

We have been cautioned against destroying trees while besieging a city in order to torment and demoralize its people. About this God said: “do not destroy its trees… Eat from it, but do not cut it down.” Similarly, all types of loss enter into this prohibition. For example: if one burns clothing or breaks a utensil for nothing also violates “bal tashchit” and incurs lashes. It is explained at the end of Makot that one who cuts down good trees incurs lashes, and [the Sages] state that this was cautioned here: “Eat from it, but do not cut it down...” (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Commandment 57)[7]

          We have thus seen that there is a dispute about the parameters of the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees during a siege. Rambam maintains that any destruction is forbidden, even if necessary for the war, whereas Ramban believes that destruction that is necessary for war, even of fruiting trees, is permitted. This is how Minchat Chinukh explains this dispute:

Ramban’s opinion on this mitzva is that when ending a siege it is permitted to destroy, and during the siege this is permitted in order to harm the city dwellers so they cannot live off the trees. [The Torah forbade this] only if we wish to conquer the city, in which case it is unnecessary destruction. But Rambam, Laws of Kings 6:8 implies that it is always forbidden. Thus, [Ramban] writes that [Rambam]’s statements on this mitzva are inaccurate.[8]

          This teaches us that the source for this mitzva is formulated in context of war specifically because war is perceived as something fundamentally destructive. War tends toward unchecked devastation. Yet the Torah focuses on the positive objectives of war: it is designed to protect the nation from its enemies, to protect its sovereignty, or to acquire strategic assets that serve its vital national interests. Therefore, the degree of devastation that serves the objectives and is therefore permitted and even required must always be considered intelligently and with full control. Whatever constitutes devastation for its own sake must be avoided.

          There may be a positive and even more essential point here: examining which targets to hit and which to avoid reflects the Torah’s basic approach of educating one to aspire to do good, to make a positive, constructive, nurturing contribution to God’s world and to limit devastation, destruction, and extirpation to the absolute minimum. This is how Sefer Ha-chinukh (§529) explains the mitzva:

The root of the mitzva is known: to train us to love what is good and beneficial and to adhere to it; as a result, goodness will cling to us, and we will move well away from every evil and destructive thing. This is the path of saintly and pious people: they love peace, rejoice at the good fortune of people, and bring them near the Torah. They will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see. If they are able to salvage something, they will use all their power to save it from ruin. The wicked are not like this. These brothers of demons rejoice at the world’s ruin. Yet they destroy themselves, for one is measured by the same standard that one uses to measure others, i.e., through which one relates to the world. This is similar to what is written: “he that is glad at calamity shall not be unpunished” (Mishlei 17:5). But one who desires goodness and rejoices in it may rest assured forever. This is well known.

          Ha-ketav Ve-hakabala, a commentary on the Torah, similarly

explains (in comments on Devarim 20:19) that with this mitzva, the Torah teaches us how sensitive we must be toward trees, which are God’s creations and designed to be life-giving. It is inappropriate to use live-giving trees to harm life during a siege:

The reason for this prohibition is that it is inappropriate to use a creation for ends that are the opposite of their initial intent. [The Sages] explained “for you have waved your sword over them and profaned them” (Shemot 20:21), the ban on using metal-hewn stones for the altar, in similar terms: the altar was created to prolong human life and iron was created to shorten human life; it makes no sense for the life-shortener to be waved over the life-extender. Similarly, trees, which were created to produce fruits and provide sustenance for humans, should not be used for any purpose that causes destruction to humans.

          Based on this, perhaps we can understand the halakhic position that permits cutting down trees whenever it is necessary for war: it prevents risk to our soldiers and thus saves lives. The prohibition is only against destruction that has no purpose and no benefit.

  1. The Necessary Precautions against Extraneous Harm to Human Life during War

The Torah’s commandment not to destroy trees for no purpose must be our yardstick for proportionality during war. War is

perceived as something fundamentally destructive and ruinous, and it carries the risk of a complete loss of proportionality on one hand, and of a tendency toward the other extreme – self-righteous pacifism – on the other. According to the Torah, a just war justifies harming human life as well. This harm must be proportional – measured out in light of the objective and the mission, and taking precautions that there is no superfluous harm. This is true both of harm the life of an enemy when there is no operational justification and when it does not serve the war’s objectives,[9] and even more so with regard to our soldiers. Their blood must not be cheap in our eyes, and they must not be unnecessarily endangered. The endangerment of our soldiers demands meticulous deliberation and extended, unimpeded contemplation of the necessity and justification of the mission. On the other hand, we must not lose these standards and refrain from carrying out a justified and necessary operation – one that saves lives and protects important national interests – just because it may have a price in human lives. During the last war, we had many occasions to tell senior officers that when it comes to war and national defense, “one who wants cheap security is likely to pay a heavy price for it.”

We may also learn from here that according to the Torah when the lives of our soldiers are at stake along with enemy assets or personnel, the lives of our soldiers must be given priority and vigorously protected.

All of the above calls our attention to another aspect of the obligation to refrain from superfluous damage during war: the Torah formulates a general principle about warfare in terms of fruit trees, of all things. The commandment that equates man to fruit trees can teach us the reverse as well. The tree, its growth, its development, and its yield of fruit are an expression of human life, which is akin to a fruit-giving tree. Even in the heat of battle one must take care not to uproot the tree or prevent it from bearing fruit. This principle is amplified by the Sages in their explanation of the law of the egla arufa, the heifer that must be slain when a murder victim is found in an open area and the perpetrator is unknown:

  1. R. Yochanan b. Shaul said: Why does the Torah say to bring a heifer to a dry riverbed? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let something which does not produce fruit have its neck broken in a place which is not fertile, and atone for one who had no opportunity to produce fruit. What are these 'fruits'? If I say it means offspring, then according to this argument we should not break a calf's neck if [the deceased] was old or castrated! Rather, [it means] mitzvot. (Sotah 46a)

Rashi (ad loc.) states:

“which does not produce fruit” – a year-old heifer that has not calved; “a place which is not fertile” – a harsh, rocky riverbed; “who was not allowed” – for he was killed.

          The Gemara originally thought that man’s “fruits” are his offspring, and therefore a heifer’s neck should be broken in a rocky riverbed – because this person never got the opportunity to have children. Yet the conclusion is that the “fruits” in question are mitzvot and good deeds, the fruit of man’s action in the world. The growth that emerges from the tree is a metaphor and model for the growth that comes into the world by virtue of man’s actions and efforts. We are therefore especially cautioned not to harm living things and their fruits. Every person is an entire world, and snuffing out a life prematurely leaves a vacuum in the world, as the mishna explains:

For this reason man was created singly: to teach you that whoever destroys a single life in Israel, Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed an entire world; and whoever sustains one life in Israel, Scripture accounts it as if he had sustained an entire world… and to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He. For a person mints many coins with one stamp, and they are all alike, but the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and no two are alike. Therefore each and every person must say, "The world was created for my sake." (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

          We have thus learned about the value of human life in general, during battle specifically, and the supreme value of preserving life. But we can learn more from this about the noble act of one who, in the heat of battle, risks his life to save the lives of others.[10]

[1] The following part of an essay in memory of Captain Benaya Rein hy”d, 27, of Karnei Shomron, on the occasion of a Shomron regional tree-planting event on Tu Bi-Shvat just after the Second Lebanon War. Benaya was an officer in the 46th Armored Brigade. During the Second Lebanon War he established a rescue team that helped rescue dozens of soldiers with a great deal of heroism and self-sacrifice. On 19 Av, 5766, Benaya was killed when a missile hit the tank he commanded on the way to rescue wounded soldiers. In context of Benaya’s heroic actions and singular acts of kindness for which he received a Citation, we sought to explain in depth the broad issue encapsulated in the verse “for man is the tree of the field.” We will never forget the date and time during the war, as we sat at the Northern Front Command, when we received word of the incident that claimed Benaya’s life. In this essay, we have tried to offer a few unmediated insights that came into focus during the war that we took part in. We also therefore want to adopt the dear Rein family, a family of Torah, of settling Eretz Yisrael, and of kindness, into our hearts. Benaya’s image and actions must be a symbol and model for us. We must use it to educate our students and disciples. May his soul be bound in the bonds of life.

[2] Among all the other ills of war, this would destroy thousands of acres of natural woodland and many acres of fruit trees that will take years to replace.

[3] This is explained in greater detail in R. Bachya’s commentary to Devarim 20:19: “’Do not cut it down, for man is the tree of the field’ – the commentators explain that man’s life and nourishment are from the tree of the field, as it states “he is taking the soul as pledge.” Therefore I command you: do not destroy it, because it contains a blessing.”

[4] See also Seforno ad loc.

[5] Yisrael Kedoshim §7. Similarly, Machshevet Charutz §19: “The full power of anything lies at the first place it is mentioned in the Torah.” See also Pri Tzadik on Chanukah §18 and on Rosh Chodesh Adar §7.

[6] See Bava Kama 91 and the commentaries ad loc., as well as elsewhere in the Talmud.

[7] See also Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings ch. 6. Regarding the severity of the prohibition against destroying during war, another particularly interesting passage from Rambam is worth exploring. He explains that when Elisha cut down trees in his war against Moav, it was a temporary measure that would otherwise have been forbidden. See Rambam’s introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna: “As Elisha did during the order to wage war against Moav and cut down every fruiting tree, as it states: “fell all good trees” (II Melakhim 3:19). God forbade us to do so when He commanded: “do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them.” Had Elisha been asked whether this mitzva has been cancelled, or whether it would be permissible to cut down fruiting trees during future sieges, he would have said that it is not permissible, but the present actions are for a special need.

[8] Minchat Chinukh, Positive Commandments Listed by Ramban, 6:1. On Mitzva 529:1 he writes: “We are forbidden to cut down trees… as explained by Rambam, Laws of Kings 6:8. The author [of Sefer Ha-chinukh] wrote: in order to besiege the city dwellers… also violates a prohibition. Rambam also wrote this in Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Commandment 57, but he did not write this in the Mishneh Torah. Ramban, however, in #6 of his list of positive commandments, challenges Rambam and writes that it is permitted in order to besiege them, and it is only forbidden to destroy needlessly.”

[9] The command “let no one live” (Devarim 20:15) is stated only about the war against the Seven Indigenous Nations and not about every war. Similarly, the commandment to blot out the mention of Amalek applies only to Amalek. See, for example: Rashi on Vayikra 25:44; Devarim 21:10 regarding the beautiful captive woman (eshet yefat to’ar); Ibn Ezra on Shemot 21:4 regarding the likelihood of a Canaanite slave being of the Seven Indigenous Nations; and Ramban on Devarim 20:10 that one must offer peace even in a war against the Seven Indigenous Nations, and if they accept, they are not killed.

[10] See once more n. 24 above.

Communal Growth and Planting Fruit-Bearing Trees

Ever since the Jewish return to Zion in recent times, Tu Bi-Shvat, the new year for trees, has become a holiday for celebrating Eretz Yisrael and its fruit, especially by planting trees.

Fruit trees constitute a component of man’s diet, but the phenomenon of tree growth, and especially that of fruit-bearing trees, is a metaphor for man’s good works. Man is constantly being examined: is he a fruit-bearing tree or is he a tree that provides no fruit and exists only for itself (leaving aside what it contributes through the release of oxygen and through nitrogen fixation).

Planting fruit trees also symbolizes and models the individual’s motivation to give of himself to others without any expectation of repayment. This is especially true of trees that will bear fruit for future generations.

Planting fruit trees is one of the first mitzvot that God commanded the people of Israel upon their entry into Eretz Yisrael and emergence as a nation:

When you come into the land and plant all manner of trees for food, you shall count its fruit as forbidden (orlah). For three years it shall be orlah to you; it shall not be eaten. (Vayikra 19:23)

          According to the Midrash, this verse does not merely command us to observe orlah, but in fact to plant immediately upon our arrival in Eretz Yisrael:

“When you come into the land” – God said to Israel: “Though you will find it filled with all manner of good, do not say, ‘let us settle and not plant,’ rather, take care to plant,” as it says: “and plant all manner of trees for food.” Just as you entered and found what others had planted, you too plant for your children; no one should say, “I am old and will be dead tomorrow. Why should I toil on behalf of others?” King Shlomo stated: “He made everything beautiful in its time; He has also put the world [ha-olam] in their heart” (Kohelet 3:11). This is written as “the hidden [ha-alam].” Why? If God had not hidden the day of death from man, no man would build or plant, for they would say “tomorrow I will die. Why should I toil on behalf of others?” For this reason, God hid death from the heart of man, so that man would build and plant. If he merits it, they will be his. If not, they will be for others… Therefore, man should not desist from planting. Rather, just as he found, he should continue to plan, even when old. God, as it were, said to Israel: “Learn from me – ‘and God planted a garden in the east of Eden’ (Bereishit 2:8). (Midrash Tanchuma, Kedoshim §8)

The commandment to plant trees upon entering Eretz Yisrael has two levels: the physical – showing concern for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael – and the spiritual/moral – educating toward mutual responsibility within the community. After all, why would one take the trouble to plant a tree if he has no personal need for it? Does it not stem solely from a moral obligation generated by the benefit he gets from the trees planted for him by others?

          This teaches us that the Torah wants to shape a growth-oriented and nurturing communal model. To that end, an underlying sense of mutual responsibility must be engendered within each individual. Everyone must understand that within a community, like with fruit trees, the individual does not live for himself. Today he enjoys the trees that others planted for him, and others will enjoy trees in the future only if an individual plants them now. Only with this type of awareness can a community be nurtured, and only thus will individuals manage to break the ego’s restrictive boundaries and provide an answer to the self-directed question: “Why should I toil on behalf of others?” The communal sensibility that shapes the obligation to plant for others stems from care and compassion for others and for the community, due to the value of the collective and the community, and not because of the personal benefit he stands to gain from it.

          The Torah also sets a very high standard for an individual, whose contributions to the community result from his adherence to God’s attribute of not acting out of His needs, but on behalf of others, like when planting the Garden of Eden: God, as it were, said to Israel: “Learn from me – ‘and God planted a garden in the east of Eden.’”

          This applies to the carob tree especially, as it only yields fruit after seventy years. One who plants a carob knows that he will not enjoy its fruits; he plants it solely out of his responsibility and concern for future generations – not as one who enters from outside, but as one who is part of the community, as is told about Choni the Circle-maker:

One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” He then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me, so too I plant these for my children. (Ta’anit 23a)

          Rav Kook formulated a saying about the month of Shvat in the same spirit:

The urge to plant trees stems from the desire to benefit future generations, as displayed most prominently by the carob tree.[1]

Yet the carob tree has another communal context: the spiritual contribution that the individual is supposed to make to his community and the collective that he is a part of. Rav Kook explained that specifically the carob tree was suited to be the staple food and primary sustenance of R. Shimon b. Yochai (Rashbi) and his son as they delved into the esoteric dimension of the Torah in their cave:

For this reason, their sustenance was specifically miraculous, and from a carob tree, whose planting in the world is characteristically the result of a stable idea of love for the collective, in the most moral way, as an obligation of enlightened integrity to plant so that there are the next generations: “as my forefathers planted these for me.” He is therefore closer to the sublime rationality of those great ones who multiply the highest good of the generations and the eras through their sublime and holy vision.[2]

Why were they provided with a carob tree specifically? Why not a fig tree or date palm?

Rashbi and his son, who secluded themselves in a cave to study and to engage in esoteric wisdom, were not interested in disconnecting from their community and creating their own individual world. They isolated themselves precisely because of their concern about the world’s existence, the general situation, and generations that would arise after the Destruction and Exile. In their seclusion, they strove to achieve dizzying spiritual heights and reveal the Torah’s secrets. From these heights, they hoped to have a spiritual impact on the community, the general population, and the whole world. Through their meditations, they could chart a course and impart the tools that would enable meeting future challenges, the travails of the long future exile. Their path would infuse a generation that underwent destruction with new hope. For that reason, the appropriate physical nourishment for them was the carob, which represents working for and within the collective.

The seclusion of Rashbi and his son in the cave gave the world the esoteric dimension of the Torah, whose principles are developed in the Zohar:

“The enlightened shall understand…” (Daniel 12:10). For them it states: “The enlightened shall shine like the brilliance (zohar) of the firmament” (ibid. 3). Through this work of yours, the book of Zohar, from the radiance of the supernal awe… since Israel will taste from the tree of life, which is this book of Zohar, they will thereby be mercifully extracted from the exile, thus fulfilling “God alone shall lead them, and there is no foreign god with Him” (Devarim 32:12). (Zohar III 124b)

          We learn from Rashbi and his son in the cave that man’s actions in this world must stem from concern with the public, but taking a long view and not the short-term view. We see from R. Kook that their nourishment from a carob tree is apropos of the long-term vision expressed in their spiritual endeavors. This type of vision guarantees that their efforts will bear fruit and their hard work will not be for naught.

          Perhaps R. Kook’s explanation can shed light on what the Sages say of R. Chanina:

Every day, a heavenly voice goes forth and states: “The entire world is nourished on behalf of my son; and my son Chanina is content with one measure of carobs per week.” (Chulin 86a)

          The entire world is nourished in the merit of R. Chanina, whose own nourishment consisted of carob – the minimalist diet of a saint who is content with the minimum, who is focused on spiritual matters and not attracted to materialism. Yet in light of R. Kook’s idea we can say that the nourishment that fueled R. Chanina’s spiritual endeavors is the same carob that symbolizes farsightedness and concern for the public. A broad view like this one sustains and gives direction to the entire world. It yields fruit that the whole world can enjoy.

          On the new year for trees, we must remind ourselves of our collective and communal responsibility, yeshiva students included, to plant spiritual trees with strong roots that will bear fruit in the future – not just for ourselves, but for the collective and the community. We will all enjoy their fruits.

[1] "Meged Yerachim”, Shvat 5674. See also, at greater length, Ein Ayah on Shabbat, p. 204 ff., and in R. Klachheim’s explanation of Meged Yerachim for Shvat.

[2] Ein Ayah, Shabbat p. 204.

Protecting Nature – Ecology through the Prism of Torah

Preserving the Environment as a Jewish Value

            The past few decades have witnessed the emergence of ecological and environmental awareness, protection of species, and preservation of nature and countryside. Does the Torah address this issue specifically? And how does it relate to Tu Bi-Shvat?

          The Torah relates to the environment as a value and as a necessity on several levels. The most basic level is that of need – protecting the environment as part of the need to preserve a high quality of life, aesthetics, cleanliness, and health.

          In this context, the issue of environmental protection is more properly considered the protection of quality of life, and not the protection of the environment for its own sake. This area would also include the protection of the environment, on behalf of society and the collective, from carelessness and damage caused by stemming from individual members of society who allow themselves to damage and ruin nature and destroy the environment in which we live.

          But there is another, higher level: preserving nature and the environment as an independent value. Protecting the countryside, flora, and fauna from harm in their natural habitats is valuable not merely as the preservation of quality of life, but as the protection and preservation of nature for its own sake; to an extent, nature is powerless next to man, who is sometimes liable to devastate, not preserve, the natural order. A study of Jewish sources reveals two divergent attitudes, corresponding to these two levels. Of course, the more unique and fascinating level is the deeper and broader attitude that views environmental preservation as an independent value! An example that is one of many but nevertheless basic and primary is the duty to preserve nature that was imposed upon Adam in the Garden of Eden.

          By way of introduction to this example, we must begin with a basic principle: if something is basic and essential something to the existence of man and the world, it will appear already at the dawn of history. This is the case with regard to the independent value of environmental protection in Jewish thought.

          The Torah’s description of man’s creation contains three cycles. The first cycle is the personal cycle of man alone, in which the description of his creation is retold. The second cycle is the environmental cycle – the planting of the Garden of Eden and its rivers, and settling man within the garden. The third cycle is the familial cycle – the creation of woman and establishing a family. The fact that the environmental cycle precedes the familiar cycle no doubt speaks for itself and highlights the importance of this matter in the process of creation and in human thought.

          According to the book of Bereishit, man’s first encounter with his Creator, and the first task given to man, was:

And the Lord God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and protect it. And the lord God commanded Adam, saying: “Of every tree of the garden thou may eat.” (Bereishit 2: 15-16)

          In its succinct and cryptic way, the Torah calls man’s duty to protect the trees of the garden “and protect it.” But where the Torah left things unsaid, the Sages expand and describe a sort of guided tour that God gives Adam among the trees in the garden. The purpose of the tour was to train man how to relate to his environment:

“Consider the work of God; for who can make straight what He has made crooked?” When God created the first man he took him, showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” (Kohelet Rabba 7:13)

          On one hand, man is given the opportunity to use the world and to enjoy its contents. On the other hand, he is charged with using it in moderation, not more, so that he may protect flora and the environment: “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world.

          This midrash gives expression to man’s vast capacity for influencing his environment, for better or for worse, to advance and nurture, or to devastate and destroy.

          Humanity has been given a precious deposit: the wide, wonderful, complex world, created by God Almighty and embodying His infinite wisdom. It is true that man may use the world for his own sustenance, but exercising this right is liable to make man smug and give him a sense of unrestrained superiority. He is likely, then, to ruin components of this world needlessly. Therefore, the first man, Adam, was commanded to use creation to meet his needs intelligently and cautiously, so that he does not destroy God’s creation.

          This has significance for our thinking, values, and sensibilities. One who contemplates creation should see God’s wonders within nature’s beauty and majesty: “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are!” Nature’s awesomeness should fill him with humility in the presence of the infinite divine source of creation. These meditations should also develop a subtle a subtle attentiveness to the command that has been issuing forth since the dawn of history: “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world!” This is the source of man’s responsibility for his environment, for his emerging awareness that “if you ruin it, there will be nobody after you to repair it!” It is with this sensibility that man is commanded to protect the environment and the earth proactively.

          The original commandment to protect the environment focused on plant life, the trees in the garden, whether fruit-bearing or not. Therein lies its connection to Tu Bi-Shvat, the new year for trees. The Torah also records the commandment to protect nature, and trees in particular, in context of warfare:

When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. Eat from it, but do not cut it down. For man is the tree of the field, so that it may capitulate to your siege. Only the trees that you know are not for food you may destroy and cut down, so that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Devarim 20:19-20)

Rashi (ad loc.) explains that specifically during wartime one must distinguish between a legitimate target and something that lies outside the realm of warfare, whose destruction constitutes devastation and wreckage for its own sake:

“For man is the tree of the field” – the word “ki” serves to pose a question: “Is man the tree of a field that it should capitulate to your siege and be afflicted with hunger and thirst like the people of the city?”

According to Rambam, the prohibition against destroying trees is a paradigm for a prohibition against the needless destruction of anything:

We have been cautioned against destroying trees while besieging a city in order to torment and demoralize its people. About this God said: “do not destroy its trees… Eat from it, but do not cut it down.” Similarly, all types of loss enter into this prohibition. For example: if one burns clothing or breaks a utensil for nothing also violates “bal tashchit” and incurs lashes. It is explained at the end of Makot that one who cuts down good trees incurs lashes, and [the Sages] state that this was cautioned here: “Eat from it, but do not cut it down...” (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Commandment 57)

          There is yet another lesson here: nature belongs to God. He gives it to man to enjoy and utilize for his own existence, but there are boundaries that must not be crossed. Man must not pretend to be nature’s master or use it to serve his whim.

          Occasionally there is tension between progress and development on one hand and the duty to protect nature on the other. Specifically in the modern era, when powerful tools have been developed for man to use to improve his lifestyle and quality of life, there is a danger that such power will be used in a way that harms nature massively and sometimes irrevocably. It is specifically in modern times that we must increase our awareness that “if you ruin it, there will be nobody after you to repair it!” “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world!

          To that end, we must first and foremost raise awareness that the natural environment is independently valuable. Man must learn not to see nature as a “powerless” asset that can be exploited for whatever one wants. This engenders a particularly modern duty to utilize what the world and nature offer man without damaging them. Educating toward the preservation of plant life and the environment must develop out of a profound understanding of the value of everything created by God. R. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and the son of “the Nazir” R. David Cohen, tells of Rav Kook’s amazing sensitivity toward plants:

We have a well-known tradition not to destroy any plant or tree even when it is not expressly forbidden by the Torah. I heard a story from the sainted Rabbi Aryeh Levin about him and our teacher Rav Kook; he even told me where it took place, but that is for another time. Here is the story:

When I was granted, with God’s kindness, to ascend to the Holy Land, to Yafo, I first went to visit our master, R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who received me with good cheer, as was his custom to receive all people. We discussed various Torah topics. After an early mincha, he went out, as was his custom, for meditative stroll in the fields to gather his thoughts. I accompanied him. Along the way, I picked some grass or a flower. R. Kook was taken and told me gently: “Believe me — my whole life I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly. There is not a single blade of grass below that does not have a heavenly force above telling it: Grow! Every blade of grass tells us something. Every stone whispers some secret. Every creature sings a song.”[1]

[1] R. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, “Cutting Down Trees during Wartime and Peace Time [Hebrew],” Techumin 4. He continues: “The root of this matter is in the holy heights, in numerous sayings from the Sages… There are even more sublime ideas that I heard from my father, the sainted Nazir, and here is not the place to go into detail. We can sum up that it is clear and explicit that according to the inner meaning of the Torah, in accordance with on aggadic teachings and based on moral principles and inner esoteric wisdom (see Tomer Devora – as is known to initiates of esoteric wisdom), there is a general prohibition against harming living plants or trees.” The story also appears in Simcha Raz’s biography of R. Aryeh Levin, A Tzaddik in Our Time, pp. 108-109.

The Mitzva to Cultivate the Holy Fruit of “Eretz Ha-Tzvi

The sanctity of the fruits of Eretz Yisrael, which grow from the land, finds expression in another mitzva as well: cultivating the earth of Eretz Yisrael and growing fruit in it, as Chatam Sofer explains:

In my humble opinion, R. Yishmael only invoked the verse of

“you shall gather your grain” with regard to Eretz Yisrael when the majority of Israel is on their land, when working the land is itself a mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael and bringing forth its holy fruits. Regarding this, the Torah commanded “and you shall gather your grain.” Boaz[1] winnowed on the threshing floor at night because it was a mitzva. As it is absurd to say "I will not put on tefillin because I am busy studying Torah", so too one should not say "I will not gather my grain because I am busy studying Torah." It is possible that even other trades that contribute to civilization all have the status of a mitzva. However, when due to our many sins we are scattered amongst the gentile nations, and “one who contributes to world civilization further destroys worship of God”, R. Yishmael would concur with R. Shimon b. Yochai! (but in Eretz Yisrael all agree with R. Yishmael that there is a mitva to settle the land which is not deferred by Torah study)… (Chidushei Chatam Sofer, Sukkah 36a)

Chatam Sofer’s words are very powerful. He gives this mitzva of bringing forth the holy fruits of Eretz Yisrael the highest priority; it is not even deferred by Torah study! This mitzva puts agriculture in Eretz Yisrael on a different level than any other land:

Agriculture – the primary element of any civilized land – for

all the nations is nothing but a normal economic factor. But for the nation whose life-content is the holiest of the holy, and whose land, language, and values are holy in their entirety, agriculture is also imbued with holiness.[2]

According to R. Kook, cultivating the fruit of Eretz Yisrael is a sacred value, not merely agriculture as an element of the economy. This insight also underlies the historical dispute between the Pharisees and the Boethusians regarding whether harvesting for the Omer offering supersedes Shabbat:

This sanctity underlying agriculture is highlighted by the fact that the first harvest, the Omer, rises to the level of the highest worship – it is a public offering that supersedes Shabbat. The Boethusians, who opposed such deferral of Shabbat, certainly were not more pious about the sanctity and observance of Shabbat than those who always kept Shabbat, the Pharisees… They had a toxic idea… to disconnect agriculture from its inherent holiness… separating the higher, esoteric, heavenly worship of the divine from practical, earth-bound agriculture and construction… but the people that collectively knows how to protect its hallows, God’s word that is still with them, also insists on the sanctity of agriculture in Eretz Yisrael, which is also connected to – and extends from – a holy source. Though continued agricultural work is mundane labor and thus forbidden on Shabbat, the offering that initiated this work, the Omer, rises to the level of the Temple holiness, just like other public offerings – the tamid-offerings and the musaf-offerings – and like them supersedes Shabbat.[3]

The mitzva to plant and grow fruits in Eretz Yisrael enables a new and unique understanding of the words of this midrash:

“When you come into the land and plant” – God said to Israel: “Though you will find it filled with all manner of good, do not say, ‘let us settle and not plant,’ rather, take care to plant,” as it says: “and plant all manner of trees for food.” Just as you entered and found what others had planted, you too plant for your children; no one should say, “I am old and will be dead tomorrow. Why should I toil on behalf of others?” Therefore, man should not desist from planting. Rather, just as he found, he should continue to plant, even when old. God, as it were, said to Israel: “Learn from me – ‘and God planted a garden in the east of Eden’ (Bereishit 2:8). (Midrash Tanchuma, Kedoshim §8)

Perhaps this mitzva of bringing forth the holy fruits of Eretz Yisrael, which makes Erezt Yisrael unique among lands, has an even broader spiritual significance. “Growth” is also a model for transforming potential into the actual, the hidden into the revealed. Our duty is to draw holiness, which originates in hidden spiritual worlds, into our physical, revealed world.


[1] Boaz was the head of his generation’s sanhedrin, and he nevertheless went to winnow his barley at night by himself and did not rely solely on his workers. See also Bava Batra 91a: “Rabbah b. R. Huna said: Ivtzan is Boaz.” Similarly, Yalkut Shimoni on Rut (4:606) states: “Even though Boaz left and his entire Sanhedrin was filled…” Furthermore, at the time he was eighty years old, as the midrashi (Rut Rabbah 6:2) states: “Boaz was eighty years old and infertile until that righteous woman prayed for him, and he immediately became fertile…”

[2] R. Kook, Ma'amarei Ha-Re'ayah vol. I p. 179, from Ha-tor no. 23, 5688. See also vol. I p. 177, the essay entitled “Yom Ha-bikurim Zman Matan Torateinu”

[3] Ibid. He concludes: “The Sages defeated the Boethusians and prevailed over their desire to sever the agricultural basis from its holy context. When the first harvest – the Omer offering – coincided with Shabbat, its status was determined to be that of the fixed schedule of public worship, and those who were led astray learned the wisdom that with God’s right hand, which makes wealth, the Holy Land will give its produce and Eretz Yisrael will be fully rebuilt.

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