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The Torah’s sympathetic attitude toward ecology surfaces in a law legislating conduct during war. This week’s portion states: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it, to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat and you shall not cut it down.”

The Torah then offers a rationale explaining why the tree should not be cut down: “Ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh lavoh mipanecha b’matzor” (Deuteronomy 20:19). What do these words mean?

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Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra offers a simple answer. Human beings depend on trees to live. We eat their produce. Cutting down a tree is therefore forbidden, as it would deny the human being food, which is essential for life. For Ibn Ezra, the explanation should be read as a declarative statement. Don’t cut down the fruit tree for a people depend on it for sustenance.

Rashi understands the rationale differently. For Rashi, “ki ha’adam” should be read as a rhetorical question. “Is a tree a person with the ability to protect itself?” In other words, is the tree of the field a person that it should enter the siege before you?

A fundamental difference emerges between Ibn Ezra and Rashi. For Ibn Ezra, the tree is saved because of the human being – i.e., without fruit trees it would be more difficult for people to find food. Rashi takes a different perspective. For him, the tree is saved for the tree’s sake alone, without an ulterior motive. Human beings can protect themselves; trees cannot. The Torah, therefore, offers a law that protects the tree.

The Torah’s tremendous concern for trees expresses itself powerfully in numerous parables. One of the most famous is the story of a traveler in the desert. Walking for days, he’s weary and tired, when suddenly he comes upon a tree. He eats from its fruit, rests in the shade and drinks from the small brook at its roots.

When rising the next day, the traveler turns to the tree to offer thanks. “Tree, oh tree, how can I bless you? With fruit that gives sustenance? With branches that give shade? With water that quenches thirst? You have all of this!”

In a tender moment, the traveler looks to the tree and states, “I have only one blessing. May that which comes from you be as beautiful as you are” (Ta’anit 5b, 6a).

To those who disparage the environment, our Torah sends a counter-message. Trees must be protected, not only for our sake but for theirs – and for the message they teach about life. One Shabbat as I walked with my granddaughter Ariella, greeting everyone with Shabbat Shalom, she saw a tree, embraced it, and said, “Shabbat Shalom, tree.” Ariella certainly has internalized the message of the importance of the tree. May we all be blessed with this lesson as well.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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