April 19, 2024
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Appreciating the Value of Fruit Trees

Last year, a large branch broke off from a tree in our backyard. I called Robert, my trusty tree removal guy that I’ve used many times. I always enjoy talking with Robert, as his knowledge of trees is phenomenal.

Robert surveyed my property. “That’s a mulberry tree,” he said. “It has berries and it’s a fruit-bearing tree; you can’t just cut it down.” I was incredulous. I had never noticed berries on them. “And in the back, you have a black cherry tree. Same deal with that.” Robert said he learned from his Jewish customers that the Torah forbids cutting down a fruit-bearing tree. He told me some Jewish customers were unaware of that. When he told them to consult their rabbi before cutting down a fruit tree he saw in their yard, they would say, “Really??” Robert would reply, “Hey, it’s in the Book. You need to open your Torah and read it yourself.”

In this week’s parsha of Shoftim, it says, “When laying siege on an enemy city, one may not cut down fruit-bearing trees.” I began to wonder why the Torah didn’t say it directly: Don’t cut down a fruit tree. Why is the mitzvah related to laying siege on an enemy city?

This reminded me of an explanation I heard from the Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Govoha, Rav Matisyahu Salomon. After the terrible 9/11 attack, Rav Salomon taught the yeshiva a pivotal lesson that we need to learn: to be careful regarding the prohibition of bal tashchis—not to needlessly destroy or waste something beneficial. This prohibition is learned from the prohibition of cutting down a fruit-bearing tree. Initially, the crowd was puzzled: How is Rav Salomon connecting the issue of being wasteful to the tragedy of the horrific terrorist strike on the Twin Towers?

Rav Salomon went on to explain that we live in a society which breeds an attitude of devaluation. Many products are manufactured in such a way that fixing a broken part may cost only slightly less than buying a whole new product, if not just as much. Products today aren’t made to last as long as they used to. (My grandparents’ refrigerator and washer lasted for 40 years!) The younger generation tells their parents that they need a new car or coat because theirs is old. Our society has made “old” synonymous with “about to break.” Why is being old a reason to have something replaced? It’s a mindset of devaluation, whether warranted or not.

We also see in our society a devaluation of human life: assisted suicides, abortion and the ideology of “pulling the plug” when people believe the quality of a person’s life isn’t worth the cost of maintaining it. All this stems from a lack of valuing life itself.

The destruction of the Twin Towers—an epicenter of the financial district in New York City—and the killing of thousands of people in that horrible attack, symbolized the prevalent undervaluation of both worldly possessions and life itself.

Indeed, an attitude that disregards the value of possessions leads to the devaluation of life. This is the reason the Torah prohibits the chopping down of a fruit-bearing tree specifically when laying siege on an enemy city. When people are in a war involving killing and destruction, there is often an attitude which generally devalues life and property, whether or not the destruction is necessary to win the war. Precisely at this juncture, the Torah is warning us to not let this attitude become pervasive. The Torah is saying, in effect, to be careful of what you are destroying in war; don’t needlessly destroy something which has positive value.

The pasuk discussing the prohibition of chopping down a fruit tree is difficult to understand. The Torah says “ki ha’adam eitz hasadeh,” which literally means that a person is a tree of the field. The commentaries discuss at length the meaning of this pasuk. One explanation is that if one must be careful not to destroy fruit-bearing trees, he certainly needs to be careful when dealing with human life.

We are fortunate to have a value system from the Torah which is timeless and does not change based on the current whims of society. Let us appreciate the value of the possessions which help us to live our daily lives, and even more so, let us appreciate the life that Hashem has gifted to us and to our fellowmen.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged but any contributions are always welcome. Beyond PTI, Rabbi Bodenheim conducts a weekly beis midrash program with chavrusa learning in Livingston plus a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.

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