Parashat Shoftim

Friday, August 17, 2018 /6 Elul, 5778
Parashat Shoftim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Dear Friends,

Ethics apply everywhere.

Notice what our Torah teaches this week.

We read in Parashat Shoftim, which addresses many, varied details of civil and criminal law, an insightful instruction about how an Israelite army should comport itself when it engages in warfare. The text instructs that certain soldiers should be exempted from war if they meet criteria reflecting home front obligations, and the text exhorts that the army should offer a besieged city terms of peace.

Finally, when an enemy city has been besieged, Torah indicates the following: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it… you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” (Deut. 20:19)

Brilliantly, Torah introduces a vital issue into the conduct of war: an army must be sensitive to those parties – human, animal and even flora – which are vulnerable to the violence of military destruction. It has been said that there are no victors in war, and the only certainty is death and refugees. Yet, what about the suffering of noncombatants – the plants and animals in a zone where fire, dynamite and bombing is despoiling the countryside? At best, they suffer; at worst, they die. We remember Agent Orange.

Regarding trees, Torah asks, “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you?”

However, it is unlikely that any among us will be responsible for military conduct in a war. Yet, we all are responsible for our own conduct whenever there are other parties who or which are vulnerable or subject to our behavior: on the freeway, in a library, at a restaurant, in a theater or synagogue, in our home. If we extrapolate the Torah’s teaching that we must not harm the trees around a city which we are attacking, then we learn that we must be sensitive and attentive to all those who are affected by our deeds.

Ultimately, ethics is the principle and the domain of doing rightly, even to those whom we do not know, and even to inanimate stuff or insentient beings.   Hence, trees have ethical standing, and we have an ethical duty… to them, and even to other people.

Torah is essentially teaching that ethics apply everywhere.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Doug Kohn