“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?” (Devorim 20:19)
Wars must be fought, and when the Jewish army fights, it must fight to win. Victory often comes with a heavy price; lives are lost, and resources destroyed. The Torah teaches that even in war, one cannot engage in wanton destruction. If the fruit trees are providing cover for the enemy, if they somehow pose a threat to the Jewish soldiers, they may be destroyed. But to destroy for the sake of punitive destruction is prohibited. God makes this point with a simple rhetorical question, “Is the tree of the field a man? Is the tree your combatant? Is the tree your enemy?” Of course not – so don’t unleash your rage against an inanimate creation of God.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) provides an additional insight. The Rebbe explains that the verse can also be understood as a declarative statement, “Ki ha’Adam etz haSadeh (Man is like the tree of the field).” What similarity is there between the man and a tree? Man is the crown jewel of creation with the ability to speak, think and exercise free choice. The tree is inanimate and rooted in one place. Yet, man and tree share many commonalities.
Roots The tree has roots which enable it to draw nutrients from the ground. Man must learn to plant roots as well. Man must attach himself to Torah and the framework of spirituality in order to nourish his soul and grow. The deeper the roots, the more nutrients the tree can soak up. The stronger the connection to Torah and God, the more vitality one possesses. If the roots die, the tree may continue to look vital for some short period of time, but ultimately it will wither and die. If man doesn’t create roots, attach himself to the source, to God, Torah, our people – he may not wither and die but certainly will not flourish. Nourishing the roots ensures man and tree will blossom.
Fruit The greatest accomplishment for the tree is to produce fruit. Although a tree can be useful for shade or wood, the ability to produce fruit is a form of unparalleled vitality. Man must produce fruit as well. The fruit of man are his accomplishments. Every piece of Torah one learns is a fruit produced. Every act of kindness and charitable deed is another fruit which blossoms. Leading one’s family in the ways of our ancestors, inspiring others to grow and self-actualize; these are the beautiful fruits one can create. The fruit represent units of growth. The moment the fruit tree stops producing fruit is the moment it loses its purpose and meaning. The moment man stops producing the fruit of growth and accomplishment is the moment that life comes to an end. The success of one’s life is fundamentally measured by the fruit he produces.
Pruning Sometimes for the tree to grow stronger, one must cut off some of the branches. Dead or misshapen branches can impede on the future growth of the tree. We all have dead branches. These are the parts of our personality and lifestyle which are unhealthy and destructive. It can be difficult and at times painful to cut off branches, but if they’re not removed, the tree can’t grow. The farmer must know which branches to remove and which to leave. We must identify the personality and lifestyle branches which must be removed to allow the rest of our soul to grow.
We each have many teachers from whom we learn throughout our journey in this world. We learn from God, we learn from our Torah, we learn from great and righteous people and we learn from the trees. May we utilize these arboreal lessons to nurture our roots, produce beautiful fruit and find the courage to prune.
“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.” (Devorim 16:18)
The beauty of our Torah lies in its ability to convey profound, life-enhancing messages in a nuanced and gentle manner. Moshe instructs us to set up judicial systems in each of our communities. The judges must be just, pious and upright and dedicate themselves to upholding the rule of law. They may not give preferential treatment to one litigant over the other and their conduct both in and out of the court must be beyond reproach. They must overcome their fear of the powerful and not instinctively side with the poor. Their ultimate allegiance is to God, the Torah and the creation and preservation of a just society. The great Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) sees an additional, spiritual and interpersonal message in this verse. During this month of Elul, we prepare for the upcoming Days of Judgement, Yimei HaDin. We ask God for mercy and compassion. We ask our Father to look at us through the Divine lens of rachamim (compassion) and not through the prism of din (justice). How do we “convince” God to make this shift? After all, if we have done something wrong, if we committed a relationship trespass against God, what right do we have to ask for the mercy? If we committed the “crime” are we not deserving of the punishment?
The Rebbe explains that our actions in this world impact and inform the way God acts towards us (the Baal Shem Tov explains that God is like our shadow (Hashem Tzilcha –Psalms 121:5); meaning just as my shadow mimics my every move, so too God’s reaction towards me is a reflection of my actions towards others). Thus, if we want Divine compassion and mercy we must extend those very traits and behaviors towards others. If we want God to give us the benefit of the doubt, we must extend that same courtesy to others. If we want God to bestow blessing upon us, we must go out of our way to bestow upon others. If we want God to help us in difficult times, we must be ready to roll up our sleeves and help another in their time of need.
This is the meaning of the above mentioned verse. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha B’chol She’arecha, (you shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in your cities).” We each have the ability to influence Divine judgment through the judgements we make within our own city, within our own world. “V’shaftu Es Ha’am Mishpat Tzedek (you shall judge the people righteously).” If we judge the other with compassion, if we judge the other with mercy, if we give the other the benefit of the doubt, we will bring down Divine compassion from above.
It is during this sacred month that we must prepare ourselves to give an accounting of the past year and to ask for another year in which we can accomplish and be productive. We all need a bit of Divine compassion, rachamim, to help us through this process. We learn from this opening verse that the best way to convince God to take care of us is to take care of one another. If we shower compassion, mercy and love upon one another, if we are a bit less critical of one another, we will be privileged to receive a generous dose of rachamim from our Father above.
Let us learn this lesson, let us live this lesson and in its merit may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
These were the final conversations. The nation could see and feel the Land of Israel. It was finally within reach. But Moshe had to prepare them. Although he would not accompany them into the land, Moshe’s sacred mission was to prepare them for the challenges they would face. Chief amongst Moshe’s fears was that the people would fall prey to the idolatrous culture prevalent amongst the indigenous nations. Over and over again Moshe warns and exhorts the nation to uproot and destroy every last vestige of Canaanite polytheism.
Among the multiple prohibitions, Moshe commands: “And you shall not set up for yourself a monument (matzeyva), which the Lord your God despises (Devorim 16:22).” What is this matzeyva monument? Rashi explains that it was an altar made from one stone as opposed to the mizbeyach altar, which was made of multiple, individual stones. But why would God “despise” it? Throughout the book of Genesis (Bereishis) we find many examples of great, righteous people building matzeyvos to serve God. What changed to make the matzeyva so terribly distasteful in the eyes of God that the Torah must warn us so strongly against its use? Rashi explains that the matzeyva had become central to Canaanite idolatrous practice. Thus, although it was “beloved” by God when the Patriarchs used it, it was now abhorrent in the eyes of the Creator. Still, the Torah could have simply stated “don’t build a matzeyva” (much in the same way it says, “Don’t plant an asheyra tree” – a type of tree used for idolatrous worship). But to say that God despises something which was a staple in the religious service of the forefathers seems extreme. At the base of Mount Sinai, the very spot of incredible Divine revelation, the Torah tells us that Moshe built twelve matzeyva altars for the twelve tribes of Israel. On the future site of the Beis HaMikdash our forefather Yaakov built a matzeyva altar from the stone he had placed beneath his head. Avraham and Yitzchak built matzeyva altars wherever they travelled. How could it be that the very thing that was beloved and accepted by God in previous generations had suddenly become despised?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt’l, in his work titled Midbar Shur, explains that each of the Patriarchs represented and embodied a particular character trait (middah). Avraham represented chessed (kindness), Yitzchak embodied gevura (strength), and Yaakov stood for emes (truth). Each Patriarch used his middah in the service of God. If you were to approach Avraham and ask him for advice on how to create a meaningful relationship with God, he would instruct you to do good for others and you will merit this desired closeness. Chessed is the key for connection. We lose connection with God because we become overly focused on the self. Think about others; give to others, live for the other and you will find God. Yitzchak would advocate for gevurah – one must display personal strength and commitment to personal growth. One must find the strength to sacrifice for the Almighty. You must build and bolster yourself in order to influence the world around you. If one cultivates these strengths, then a meaningful and lasting relationship with the Almighty is within reach. Yaakov would advise that the path to God requires unequivocal commitment to emes; truth must serve as man’s compass in finding our Father above. It is easy to lose your way in life you must be firm in your commitment to our values and beliefs.
Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov created these solid pillars of chessed, gevurah, and emes. Their single-stone matzeyvos represented their singular and individualized approach to the service of God.
Moshe declared to the Jewish People that this was no longer an acceptable approach. After forty years of spiritual maturation in the desert, God expected us to spiritually diversify, becoming “proficient” in many areas of life by acquiring different character traits and abilities. One has to strive to become a chessed, gevurah and emes Jew. We have to become people who engage in meaningful prayer and help the poor. We must be people who are focused on growth and personal development and at the same time are attentive to the needs of the other. We must remain true to our values and beliefs while coexisting with others who may live and believe differently. The single-stone matzeyva was acceptable and even desirable for the forefathers but it is off limits to us. From us, God demands a mizbeyach avanim, a multi-stone, multi-faceted altar.
But Moshe does not stop there. Asher sanay – the one thing that God despises more than anything is when we sell ourselves short. The greatest affront to God is when we convince ourselves that we cannot be more. God endowed each of us with such beautiful and awesome abilities and talents – it is our Divine obligation to discover and utilize them. I have no right to tell God that I can only be proficient in one particular area or only accomplish certain things while other achievements are simply beyond my reach.
The single stone, the single approach matzeyva gives man a license to be “one thing.” Asher sanay – “I hate when you convince yourselves that you can’t be more.” Hashem hates the matzeyva because it has come to represent excellence and commitment in one area, whereas God asks us to be mitzuyanim, to excel in all we do.
Our life mission is to accumulate stones. These stones represent all of the different character traits, middos and abilities we must possess in order to be successful people. We must learn to spiritually diversify and strive for proficiency and piety in all areas of Judaic life. We begin this process one ‘stone’ at a time. I begin by taking inventory of the stones I have already accumulated. Are they polished and properly chiseled? Are they clean and properly cared for? Am I actualizing the strengths I already know I possess? Am I maximizing the potential I know I have? After the inventory I ask myself a simple question – what additional stones do I need? What qualities and traits do I lack and how can I acquire them?
We have outgrown the matzeyva and we are privileged to be a mizbeyach. May we find the strength to actualize this great gift.