In Simcha Raz’s classic biography of Rav Aryeh Levin (ZT”L), A Tzaddik in Our Time, he tells a story about Rav Levin and his own rav, R’ Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook (ZT”L).
The two great rabbanim were walking together when they passed under a tree. Absentmindedly, Rav Aryeh Levin plucked a leaf from its branches and let it fall. Rav Kook scolded him, saying that by disconnecting a plant, he was cutting it off from its source of life. Rav Kook then quoted the Ma’amar Chazal that stated that every blade of grass has an angel that watches over it and whispers to it to grow. When the leaf was needlessly destroyed, it was being cut off from that malach.
The idea of destroying trees is also addressed in this week’s parsha. The parsha describes a battleground in which a Jewish army has been sieging a city for many days. The Torah forbids the Israelite soldiers from destroying fruit trees, yet permits the destruction of trees which have no edible purpose. Between these two comments, the Torah makes an unusual comment, “Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?” What does this question mean, and how does it connect to the prohibition of destroying fruit trees?
Rashi explains this question as being a rhetorical one. He explains that when one is sieging a city, one only means to destroy its inhabitants, who are the attacking army’s enemies. Therefore, Rashi argues, how could a fruit tree be your enemy? Can it fight against you? Did it choose enter or remain in a war zone to be starved out and afflicted like the city’s residents? Since a fruit tree is not a person, it does not need to be destroyed.
The Ibn Ezra rejects Rashi’s explanation of the Torah’s use of the word “ki” in the original Hebrew, according to which it renders the phrase interrogative. The Ibn Ezra explains that the term is a connecting one, as opposed to indicating a rhetorical question. The fruit tree is the source of a person’s life, by providing humanity with food. Since people are dependent on fruit trees for sustenance, it is not morally correct to destroy it for no reason. Although it is perfectly acceptable to eat from it, as this is the way of the world, needless destruction is wrong.
The Sefer HaChinuch quotes the Gemara in Shabbos 129A which says that this is the source for the Torah prohibition against “ba’al tashchit,” or needless waste. The Sefer HaChinuch elaborates on this theme, explaining that when one wastes food or resources, it instills in the waster the trait of destructiveness. This trait is considered a close cousin to evil, which rejoices in the destruction of the world. The Gemara in Shabbos 105B states that if someone destroys something in a fit of rage, it is equal to serving idols.
This is a theme that frequently appears in the Sefer HaChinuch. Humans are passive by nature, and the mitzvot are meant as a spiritual wake-up call. When one does a mitzvah, the action itself instills in one’s self a certain Divine trait to be emulated. Therefore, even if one does not originally feel that sentiment, eventually, by performing the mitzvah multiple times, the trait becomes a genuine part of one’s service of G-d.
However, when one destroys a fruit tree for no particular reason, this is instilling the negative trait of enjoying destruction for its own sake. At times things must be destroyed in order to build better things in their places or to prevent them from negatively impacting others. Yet if one enjoys destroying for its own sake, this instills the trait of enjoying suffering, which leads one down an evil path to spiritual ruin. When one is angry and destroys something in the process, one is essentially stating that the world revolves around his or her wishes, and when they are not met, something must pay the price for the inconvenience. Therefore, Chazal compare it to serving avoda zara, the avoda zara of oneself.
Rav Baruch Simon, shlita, offers a third approach to this phrase comparing people to trees. Every person has certain traits embedded in the roots of his or her soul. However, sometimes people do not actualize the traits that are at their spiritual roots because they are trying to be someone they are not. The Sefer HaChassidim explains that every part of Tanach has a particular melody that is used to sing it, and it is assur to use the wrong melody with incompatible words. Rav Simon explains that for every soul, there is a unique song, and it would not be successful if it tries to sing a different one. Therefore, it would be wrong to prohibit a beautiful apple tree from blooming because people are trying to make it grow bananas.
Rav Simon also explains that certain trees need to grow in specific environments. As people are impacted by their surroundings, it is imperative to find an appropriate spiritual environment that suits one’s soul. The above-mentioned apple tree could not grow in a climate suitable for bananas. Also, even if the apple tree is in its natural environment, if that environment has been polluted or has frozen, the apple cannot grow due to having been negatively impacted by its environment.
The lessons of the fruit tree apply to our lives, even if we are not botanists or working for the EPA. First, we learn about the importance of not being wasteful, both practically and spiritually. When we are wasteful, we are destroying the plant’s connection to Hashem, while at the same time, showing we are ungrateful to Hashem for what He has given us. Destructive wasting also shows that we delight in wasting, and this germinates a love of destruction in our souls.
A final lesson from this week’s parsha applies to us and our families. We should not become the apple tree which cannot bloom because its owners want it to grow bananas. We should not behave in ways which run completely contrary to our natures, even if one would like to be that other person. Although everyone must grow spiritually and morally, the growth will be stunted if it contradicts the essential core traits of one’s soul. Similarly, even when we are trying to grow according to our souls, there must be caution taken that the surrounding environment aids that growth process and does not hinder it. Only when these conditions are made, quotes Rav Simon, then the trees will blossom beautifully and everyone will be nourished by its results, morally, spiritually, and emotionally.
Adina C. Brizel is from Kew Gardens Hills, New York. She recently completed a MS degree from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. She can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.