God, Man and Tree

Posted by Arie Strikovsky on February 5, 2001
Topics: Bereishit (Genesis), Kohelet, Halakha, Environmentalism, Zionism, History of Modern Israel

The Torah command not to destroy fruit trees when besieging a city was expanded by our sages into a prohibition against any needless destruction of nature. The metaphor of the tree has been used by Jewish mystics throughout the ages to represent the connection between God and man in both song and deed. The love of Jews for nature was ruptured by 2000 years of harsh exile. Now that we have returned to our land, we should reactivate our legacy of environmental protection and share it with the world.

Fill the land and conquer it. Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land (Genesis 1:28). God’s blessing to Adam and Eve is interpreted by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Isaac Breuer, and Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik as a positive mitsva (Commandment) calling man to develop and improve God’s world. Our sages praised labor and saw the mitsva of creative activity as expressing the Divine image in all branches of human culture.

Work and creativity are not intrinsically holy, though. They need to be rectified by humility and modesty, loyalty to friends, Torah study, and devotion to God. When man sanctifies his work days by observing the Shabbat, as God did, he becomes almost a partner in Creation. “God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and guard it” (Genesis 2:15) implies environmental protection. What could Adam possibly have done to improve the Lord’s wondrous garden? At best, Adam could preserve its quality. This idea is expressed by the Midrash: “Look at My work, how beautiful and perfect is everything that I created. I created it for you. Be careful not to ruin and destroy My world. If you ruin it, there is nobody to restore it after you (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:28). This midrash expands the command for nature preservation to the whole world. It warns us not to destroy the planet Earth!

It is well known that in wartime considerations to protect the environment are pushed aside. But the Torah forbids us to destroy fruit trees even in time of war. When you lay siege to a city and wage war against it a long time to capture it, do not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against any food-producing tree. Is a tree of the field a man who will come against you in the siege? (Deuteronomy 20:19).

Our sages expanded the above Torah prohibition of “do not destroy” to apply to any vandalism of nature or even of human cultural artifacts. Maimonides summarized the prohibition as “Take from nature what you need, but do not destroy it!” (Mishneh Torah, “The Laws of Kings” 6:8-10).

Is Man a Tree of the Field?

There are two major interpretations of the comparison made between man and tree in Deuteronomy 20:19. The first – Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides – finds a causal connection between man and tree because human life is dependent on trees: “Because man[‘s life is made from the] tree of the field.”

Some midrashim, point out the similarity between man and tree, inferring that every plant and tree has a Divine spark within and an angel above encouraging it to grow and that every person has a “tree-like spark” within him. Other midrashim, however, – Rashi and Sforno – read the verse as a question, “Is man a tree of the field?” asking, if you hate certain people and wage war against them, why should you cut down an innocent tree?

The Maharal answers the question, “Is man a tree of the field?” by explaining that the difference between the tree and man is that the roots of the tree are in the earth, whereas the roots of man are in Heaven.

Both the similarity and the difference between man and tree can be seen in the account of Honi Ha’Maagel, who, during a terrible drought, dug a trench around himself and stood inside it, saying, “Lord of the universe…I swear by Your great name that I will not move from here until you take pity on Your children” (Mishna Taanit 3:8). A self-imposed tree encircled in parched soil, Honi cried out for water. Immobile, he waited for God to bring rain and release him.

The Song of the Trees

Unlike the Maharal, who differentiated between man rooted in Heaven and the tree rooted in earth, the Sages of the Talmud taught that vegetation grows not only from below, from its roots in the soil, but also from above, from the Divine plenitude. There is an angel assigned to care for every plant.

Rabbi Simon said, “There is no plant without an angel in Heaven tending it and telling it, ‘Grow!'” (Genesis Rabba 10:7). A living plant not only hears but is heard, participating in the song of the worlds sung to the Creator. The Babylonian Talmud says that when Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh learned Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine chariot with his teacher Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakhai, the trees stood still and sang Psalm 148, “Halleluya, praise God from the Earth.”

The Jerusalem Talmud says the trees sang Psalm 96, “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for He comes, He comes to judge the Earth.” According to the Babylonian Talmud, these trees conducted the orchestra of nature, while according to the Jerusalem Talmud, they sang of the final redemption of the world and nature. Among the many good men who have heard the whisper of prayer in the rustle of the trees, Rebbe Nahman of Breslov uniquely experienced souls as wondrous trees and saw the letters of prayer as flowering angels.

The following account related by Rabbi Danny Landes about his great-uncle, Reb Aryeh Levin adds a legal-mystical dimension to the chapters of nature song: While walking with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Reb Aryeh “…picked an herb or flower. Our rabbi was shocked and mildly rebuked me, saying that he takes great care not to uselessly pick anything that could grow or sprout because…every blossom says something, every stone whispers a secret, the entire creation sings.”

Jewish Love of Nature is Linked to the Land of Israel

An examination of Jewish ethical literature reveals very little about love for and preservation of nature. Why? The answer is our long exile. For many centuries the nations who “hosted” us reminded us that we were not citizens with equal rights. We were not part of their landscape. When monarchs called upon Jewish advisers, it was not to ask them about the Jewish approach to environmental problems. Their purpose was to enlarge the national treasury as quickly as possible. Whenever Jews were able to develop their own communal culture, however, they applied Jewish principles to their environment. When our Sages extended the prohibition against raising sheep and goats in the Land of Israel to Babylon, they said, “We acted in Babylon as if we were in the Land of Israel.”

Nahmanides wrote in hostile Christian Spain about the mitsva of urban beautification that “this [type of] legislation exists only in the Land of Israel…in the Diaspora nothing has been ruled. If only this country [where we live now] would shrivel up and rot.” Significantly enough, Nahmanides escaped Spain to reestablish the Jewish community in Jerusalem.

Rebuilding the Land of Israel

The first Lovers of Zion a century ago had utopian longings to return to nature, to healthy living, and to an aesthetic environment in their call to restore the Land. Some of them were influenced by European ideas on environment, while others were influenced by halakhic (legal) and aggadic (hermeneutic and homiletic) sources. In the charter of Mea Shearim and other neighborhoods established in this period, regulations on planning and development were included that followed halakhic sources. Unfortunately, these ideals had little impact on the actual development of the land.

Since then, environmental consciousness in the world and in Israel has greatly changed. Our planet has become a polluted greenhouse and our land has been transformed from a neglected corner of the Ottoman Empire to one of the most crowded nation-states in the world. Despite the population density, the national consensus wants Israel to continue absorbing immigrants and expanding its industrial base, while struggling to maintain a clean environment.

Our struggle for a clean land requires cooperation with other countries. We share the same fate as the rest of humanity. In this context our ancient tradition of environmental law is a unique message for the nations of the world. We know the mitsvot (Commandments) between man and G d, between man and man, and between man and his nation. Now we should add the dimension of mitsvot between man and the Earth, by activating our legacy of environmental legislation.

When Abba Eban represented the State of Israel and the Jewish tradition at the ecological conference in Stockholm in 1972, he sanctified the Name of Heaven. There is more than enough opportunity in the continuing struggle for a safe world for us to be a light unto the nations and bring the word of the Torah to all the peoples of the Earth.

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