When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down; is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you? Only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down, and build a bulwark against the city that makes war with you, until it is conquered.Our discussion question, basically, was how is a tree like a man. I realize I am not providing some useful context here about how the question was presented, but the important part is that this was the question we were supposed to ponder individually.
The actual discussion brought up things such as “man, like a tree, creates ‘fruit,’” which is so in issuing children or disciples, performing mitzvot, studying Torah, performing acts of teshuvah, praying to HaShem, and so on. Discussion also focused on the way man develops his Jewish roots in childhood, grows them strong and wide later in life, and yields fruit – see above – through work, study and service. These were nice, meaningful discussions.
I was struck with the context of the passage. What interested me was that the passage concerned the conduct of war. I thought it was important that in a time of war there would be this constraint not to destroy a fruit-bearing tree.
It made me think that we are commanded to keep our aggression in check, to remember that war, though violent by definition, should not descend into all-out brutality, cruelty and destruction. Yes, there is a practical reason not to destroy a fruit-bearing tree: we may feed off of it. And yes, there is a logical reason to preserve such a tree: after all, it won’t suddenly become a warrior fighting against you like a man.
I also thought there were two key spiritual imperatives involved in protecting the fruit-bearing tree. One was the imperative to maintain one’s judgment, particularly one’s ability to distinguish things with real value. The other was the imperative to preserve one’s own stores of energy: if you swing an axe against every tree, you may tire yourself out for an actual opponent!
To me these two imperatives have a special purpose in the month of Elul. As we reflect on the year that’s closing, and on our character development and interactions with fellows, we wage a kind of war against ourselves in which virtually everything about us appears wrong. Why did I act so impulsively, so selfishly? How could I be so insensitive to so-and-so? Why couldn’t I have been more disciplined, more diligent, or more responsible? In this war, we could really become very aggressive against ourselves.
However, even in this war, we can remember to withhold some of our wrath, for we have some fruit-bearing trees that can be preserved. When we reflect on the same year, we can remember our acts of service, kindnesses and lessons learned. And we can let these be as they are, without seeking out their minute imperfections. Criticizing and fretting over every detail of every behavior eventually becomes a waste of energy and a confusion of the true direction one’s teshuvah should take – which is toward HaShem, rather than toward oneself.
So I did not exactly think about how man is like a tree, or a tree like a man. Rather, I thought about how men have, and how they plant, many kinds of tree in a year. It occurred to me that Elul is not about wiping out the past entirely, but creating an environment for its best trees to grow and to develop its yield of fruit.
The principle applies as well to approaching others. For example, maybe one has a dislike of a co-worker. One could realize that even this co-worker has a fruit-bearing tree – a skill, a common interest, a word or deed – that can be found and appreciated. Who knows? By seeing this tree and letting it stand, perhaps a wonderful friendship could result.