Is the Tree of the Field Human? A Teaching for Tu BiShvat 5783

On Tu biShvat, we celebrate the New Year for the Trees, but we also extend our focus to our relationship and responsibility to protecting the environment as a whole. Why? In Jewish thought, texts about trees offer wisdom to help us understand our broader relationship and responsibility to the created world. 

One clear example is the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit, the prohibition on needless waste. While the key text giving the mitzvah begins with discussing fruit trees in wartime, the mitzvah is extended by the sages to include prohibitions against needlessly destroying just about anything, including burning up oil or kerosene too quickly, tearing clothes, wasting water, as well as many other acts of waste or needless destruction. Two specific modern day examples of this mitzvah are the waste of edible food and the waste of energy. 

Let’s look closer at this tree text to see what more we can learn from its wisdom.

“When you besiege a city for many days, making war against it to capture it – do not destroy its trees, wielding an axe against them, for from them shall you eat, and them you shall not cut down – ki ha’adam etz hasadeh to come from before you in siege. Only trees which you know are not food trees – those may you destroy, chopping them and building a siege-engine against the city against which you are making war, until it falls.”

I intentionally left one part of this source untranslated: “Ki HaAdam Etz Hasadeh.” This phrase – the reason we are not to destroy the trees, or anything else – can be understood in two very different ways.

Rashi translates the phrase: “Is the tree of the field a human being [to come before you in siege]?” He understands the source as expressing concern for the needless destruction of the tree. Since the tree of the field is not human and cannot escape or fight back, it should not be destroyed. We may be at war, but not with the trees. 

Ibn Ezra takes a different approach to these same words.  He interprets, “[Because you may eat from it, and you shall not chop it down] for the tree of the field is human.”  In his understanding, the tree of the field is the life of humanity, because fruit trees are such an important source of food. 

As explained by Rabbi Yehoshua Kahan, while Rashi takes an ethical approach (the tree is blameless and cannot escape, so it does not deserve to be harmed), in Ibn Ezra’s view the underlying appeal is utilitarian: “What kind of a short-sighted fool would chop down that which, ultimately, viewed from a perspective wider than the tunnel vision imposed by war, is the basis of human society?” If I chop down all these trees in wartime and later, I win the war, what will I eat?

Rabbi Kahan explains that the correct interpretation depends on the Hebrew letter hey in the phrase. Often the letter hey is added to a word as a definite article – “the.” But the prefixed hey can also be used as hey hashe’elah, the hey of question, which converts the following clause into a question.  

In most circumstances, it is easy to distinguish between these two heys based on the vocalization of the text, but in this case it cannot be determined due to the fact that the hey comes just before the letter aleph in the word Adam. Both interpretations could be correct. 

This key Jewish environmental text thus presents for us a paradox. As I learned from my teacher, Jewish educator Sarah Yehudit Schneider, a paradox occurs when a larger truth is coming into the world that cannot be contained by our limited human minds. When that happens, the truth splits into two half-truths that appear mutually exclusive, but are in fact, both true. Our task with any paradox is not to discover which side is right, but to find a larger truth that encompasses both views. 

In the case of this source, the paradox is: Are we to avoid needless waste to protect our own personal interests, or to protect nature for its own sake? 

These are not abstract questions in terms of our responsibilities to the created world. Some vegetarians, for example, choose not to eat meat out of compassion for the animals themselves. On the other hand, biblical shepherds took very good care of their sheep, but their efforts were not for the sheep’s ultimate benefit.

As with all paradoxes, the point is not to choose one side of the argument, but to understand the truth in both, and to use that wisdom to choose the action that is most appropriate for the moment.

And given that this wisdom in the Torah is embedded in one of our key Jewish-environmental texts, it is worthwhile to recognize that whether we should take care of our resources is not in doubt. Whether for utilitarian or conservation reasons, we are never supposed to cut down the tree, needlessly waste food, energy or water, or otherwise destroy the precious resources we have. 

May this month of Shvat, of sap rising in the trees to bear new fruit, be one of taking new actions to avoid needless waste and build a more sustainable world. Wishing you a happy and healthy Tu biShvat. 

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