Deuteronomy 16:18 to 21:9
Moses addresses the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. He presents a plan for the set-up of the government and some of its policies including ideas regarding ecology and its role in warfare.
Moses realizes that, for success, the Israelites must have a strong government that serves all the people… not just the ruling class or the wealthy.
His plan includes a strong judicial system and a king selected by God. Both rule by following the laws and commandments of Torah. There are also sections covering the priests and prophets.
The parsha concludes with a discussion of governmental policies regarding the cities of refuge and rules of warfare.
This Torah assumes that the primary reason for battle is to fulfill the plans of the Eternal. For this reason, the troops are led by a priest. He is to tell the troops they should have no fear because God will be with them in battle. Moses tells the people that before attacking a town they should first approach it with an offer of peace. If it does not accept, battle must follow.
However, Moses tells the people to be mindful of the environment during battle…. Yes, three thousand years before Al Gore, Moses fought for the environment with this message: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed, you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.” (Deut. 20:19-20)
The message is not totally clear – The Israelites are told do not cut down trees which produce fruit. But, based on the text the reason why has been explained in differing ways.
Rashi (11th Century) looks at the words: “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” … He claims that the trees are not human … they are not at war with the Israelites… And, they can not flee the troops…. Because they are not guilty, and can not flee; they should not be destroyed.
Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th Century) understands these words to mean that the life of man is dependent on fruit-bearing trees. By destroying fruit trees, food for women, children, and future people is destroyed.
A third view is based on the fact that the land and all that it contains is God’s domain. Mankind has a responsibility to maintain the world as if it were a gift from God. Based on an interpretation of the above Torah text, we should understand that in this world objects that are good and beneficial should not be destroyed. This leads to the concept of Bal Tashchit, translated to mean “Do Not Destroy.” If an object is of use, all efforts should be taken not to harm it. So the sages interpreted this section of Torah to apply to, not only trees, but all that is “good and beneficial… Care should be taken to protect physical objects such as clothing, pottery, household items, buildings, objects of nature (i.e. waterways should not be blocked, forests should not be needlessly destroyed), and usable food should not be discarded.
However, if greater good will result from destruction, it is permitted. (i.e. natural plants can be uprooted to create a farm… Small buildings can be razed to create a more efficient housing project) But, questions of interpretation still arise… (i.e. … Should a community destroy open farm land to build a project that produces jobs and housing? …. Is the use of wind, solar, and water produced energy to be preferred over the destruction of natural recourses to obtain coal and oil?)
This discussion shows the biblical basis for environmental responsibility is not a new concept. However, as with many other biblical concepts, interpretation may be needed and sometimes debated. It just shows that the information in the Torah can, and should be, be a living text that can direct us to solutions for the problems of today’s world.