Man is a Tree of the Field by Rabbi Benny Berlin

In our parasha we find that the Torah instructs us how to wage war.

The Torah says that when we besiege a city we are not allowed to destroy the fruit bearing trees. Only those trees known to be non-fruit bearing can be cut down (Devarim 20:19-20). What is somewhat less clear, however, is why this is the case. The Torah explains that we should not cut down these trees because which literally translates as, “because man is the tree of the field.” What does this mean and how does this explain the prohibition?

I heard from Rav Simi Sherman three different explanations, quoting the Ibn Ezra, Rashi, and the Netziv. The Ibn Ezra takes a utilitarian approach to explaining this prohibition. He explains that the phrase should actually be read as follows: Man’s food is the fruit of the trees. Why would you destroy the fruit trees when your whole goal in besieging the city is to capture it for your own use? What will you eat once you’ve won if all the fruit trees of your new city have been destroyed?

On the other hand, Rashi explains that this strange formulation is actually to be read as a rhetorical question: Are the trees of the field men? Can they run away? Can they save themselves? Therefore, do not harm these innocents.

The Netziv assumes a more creative approach to this phrase and to the rationale for the prohibition. He says that the trees have provided sustenance during the duration of the siege. For that reason, the Torah cautions against unnecessarily destroying these trees. They must be valued and be shown gratitude for the support they provided.

While the approaches of Rashi and the Netziv seem to be very different, perhaps there is an underlying message that unites these two explanations.

The Netziv is not so much concerned with the trees being insulted by the slight, if not properly thanked for their efforts in the war, but about what effect this will have on our personalities. What type of person can be so callous and unappreciative towards someone or something from whom he or she has gained so much?

And Rashi’s answer is in the same theme as the Sefer HaChinuch in the context of the mitzvah not to break any bones of the paschal lamb while it is being eaten. There he explains that breaking bones, even in an unintentional way, just by virtue of its violent nature, can engender a certain violence and aggressiveness in us, as well. In that sense, this prohibition helps to build our personalities so that we will be sensitive and caring towards those with whom we interact. So, Rashi is less concerned with the ‘feelings’ of the trees than with how our treatment of these trees affects our personalities.

The Torah is indeed a guidebook for life, and oftentimes one must simply scratch a bit below the surface to find the ways in which the Torah’s many mitzvot work in harmony to help us make ourselves into the people Hashem envisions us becoming.