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When you lay siege to a city… the only tree you may destroy and cut down is one that does not give fruit (20:19-20).
The Chinuch explains that the prohibition of destroying fruit trees in conquering a city is the unnecessary vandalism to productive trees, even during times of war when the soldiers' basest instincts can rise to the surface. The emphasis is on the vandalism being unnecessary. If the wood itself is very valuable or the tree is aged and unproductive, it may be cut down (c.f. Baba Kama 91b).
That complements the Sforno's explaining that the sparing of fruit trees in besieging a city requires an act of faith on the part of the Israelites. They must believe that G-d is on their side: "For it is G-d Who goes with you to fight your enemies and save you" (20:4). Is the fruit tree going to do any harm: "Is a tree like a [warring] person?" (20:19). The Israelites are expected to trust that they will return to enjoy the fruit from the trees that they spared. "For you will eat from it" (ibid), is according to the Sforno an assurance that in the future "you will indeed eat from the tree that you rightly spared".
The Sforno's emphasis on G-d's assurance of military success assumes that the Israelites keep their side of the Covenant. "If you obey G-d absolutely… He will make the enemies that rise against you run away from you" (28:1,7). If they don't, it will be the Israelites on the run, not the Canaanites (28:25). But what if they are partly worthy and partly unworthy? In other words their spiritual position is such that they cannot take His promise for granted.
The Torah thus demands that same act of faith from those taking a city, to respect the natural, fruit-productive environment as far as reasonably possible, whether they themselves are spiritually worthy or not. The Torah requires it. As Rabbi Judah the Prince explains (Avot 2:1), one should treat a small mitzvah (commandment) with the same respect as a great one, as one does not know the standing of each mitzvah in Divine Account. Indeed, the spirit of this mitzvah includes that those who appropriately spare the fruit trees in time of war should succeed in their military endeavours, and merit to enjoy their produce on return from war.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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