Devarim 20:10-21

How easy or difficult is it to relate to what we have read today?

Some of what we read about like suing for peace before going into battle with the tribes of the promised land and saving fruit bearing trees may resonate with the reasonable side of our nature but the verses about killing whole peoples of certain named tribes, or even just the menfolk of the other tribes may be much more difficult to digest.

In our Torah saga the Children of Israel had escaped from Egypt and slavery; they had survived and thrived in the desert over forty years in spite of incredible hardship and they had arrived at last in the land Moses and the patriarchs said God had promised them.

They have become very much aware that the land was already extensively occupied by a number of tribes or peoples who are armed and have walled cities, to which they can retreat, and have been fighting amongst themselves for years, and thus are skilled at war and fighting. But Moses has told his people that God, who had destroyed the Egyptian army and fed them in the desert, would be on their side in any battle and would ensure that they defeated their enemies.

They had already fought and won some battles and word had got round Canaan and the surrounding area that the Children of Israel had a powerful God who ensured their victory.

In our reading today we see that terms of peace could be offered to some of the native peoples. If these people surrendered- for that was what terms of peace meant- they would of course become subjects of the Children of Israel, serve them and pay taxes to them for the upkeep of the new state.

If they do not surrender and battle is joined then, in victory, the writer of Shofetim says, the Children of Israel must put to death all the men of fighting age, but everyone else and their animals and property will be their spoils of war.

However, certain peoples namely the Hittites , Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites are to be utterly destroyed and not even offered terms of peace.

The reason the Torah gives for this harsh command is that God has already determined that these peoples were so sinful and corrupt that they were beyond change or redemption and, if left to live and co habit the land with the Israelites, they would corrupt them and prevent them from achieving their holy potential.

It all sounds rather bloodthirsty, harsh and scary, but if we take a good look at history we can see that aggressive migrations and colonisations have been a common and constant feature of humanity. The Egyptians, the Philistines, the Babylonians and Assyrians: the Greeks, the Romans, Vikings, Mohammedens, Mongolians and later the British, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italians, Zulus, Chinese, Russians, Germans and Japanese. Such movements are part and parcel of human history.

What the writers of Devarim may have been attempting to do, probably in retrospect -for most scholars would say that these words were written or edited at the time of the first Kings of Israel- is to lay down some guidelines about how to treat the defeated and colonised people. It may fall a little short of the Geneva conventions, but so does a lot of modern war and conflict, and the Jewish approach was probably superior to the practice of some contemporary invading and colonising armies.

Of course colonisation was not the only purpose of fighting or threatening your neighbours because often the only way for small tribes, counties or princedoms to survive was to unite against a common enemy.  Indeed the Children of Israel eventually appointed a king for this very purpose, with all the costs and benefits that kingship brings.

Our modern biblical scholars say that when Israel became a true nation, and militarily as powerful as some of its bigger neighbours, it needed to establish rules about how to administer large territories, and the writers of Devarim wanted to ensure as much as possible that Israel`s sometimes necessary rule over others would be guided by the principles of Torah and Tzedakah according to the maxim Tzedakah, Tzedakah Tirdof—Justice, Justice you shall pursue.

They wanted to ensure that the kings would try to establish a nation of Jews and colonised peoples based on principles of equity, fairness and impartiality consistent with God`s desire that His chosen people should become a Holy Nation- a people of priests.

The final sentences we read today are about the preserving of fruit bearing trees when seeking wood for military purposes like building siege machines. Interestingly these few sentences led to the development by our rabbis of the broad principle of Bal Tashchit- “you shall not destroy”.

Thus the rule to preserve trees was extended by our rabbis to all kinds of wasteful or harmful usage.

An example of this relates to the old custom of cutting one`s clothes to mark that you are in mourning.  Some people, even nearly a thousand years ago, may have taken this to extremes because Maimonides told Jewish people not to cut valuable clothes but only old or cheap clothes…. When my father died I was advised to get a cheap tie and not cut one of my fancy or expensive ones.

In more modern times the principle of Bal Tashchit has been extended to supporting environmental and ecological concerns, urging us to support recycling, the reduction or elimination of the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals, non-use of atomic weapons and nuclear production processes and the Eco Kosher Movement. An example of this last one is to urge people not to buy animals, even those killed by kosher methods, if the animal has been raised in questionable or unpleasant conditions.

The Talmud goes further in its interpretation of the command not to destroy by examining more deeply the words in verse 19.

“And you shall not cut it (the tree) down, for is the tree man, that it should be besieged by you?”

Here the scholars likened a man to a tree drawing sustenance form the earth, air, sun and rain to reach its awesome full potential by pointing out that man, too, needs to be properly nourished and cared for if he or she is to reach their full potential, and that for us to waste our potential through carelessness, indolence or idle pursuits, would be wasting God`s creation.

So, going back to our commandment not to destroy certain trees, there is an interesting Midrash on these verses that quotes God as saying to Adam and Eve: “I created this entire world for you. Do not corrupt or ruin My world. For if you do, there is no one to repair it after you.”

It would be easy to condemn our Torah for including so much about war, killing and colonisation. Many of us might prefer a gentle ethereal book, and to read only about peace and spirituality, but we live in a very different reality in which conflict and war was, and is still, very much in evidence.

We as a human race struggle to prevent resolve and stop these conflicts, so we must also learn how to deal with the imperfections and failures of our efforts and solutions. Our study of these ancient texts hopefully can help us.

As individuals we are also much plagued with imperfections and disharmony. In this month of Elul,  and during the Days of Awe, we have a great opportunity to examine our lives; we are urged to recognise and face up to our imperfections and failures so that we can be better equipped to do our part in repairing and making good both ourselves and  our imperfect world.

May God give us the understanding and wisdom to deal with our own imperfections and that of the world.

Keyn Yehi Rotzon

Stanley Cohen

25th August 2012/Elul 7 5772

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