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    Man & the trees – Shof’tim

    It sounds like heavy sarcasm when the Torah declares that in wartime an army should not attack the trees, “for is the tree of the field a man that you should besiege it?” (Deut. 20:19-20).

    The question is, “What has the tree ever done to you that you should attack it?” Fair enough, but why should you attack a human being either? What have the human beings on the opposing side ever done to you that you should want to harm them?

    There is that famous story of the Xmas truce between German and allied troops in World War I. For a day both sides laid down their arms and celebrated Xmas by fraternising and showing each other photographs of their families. When the day was over it was of course business as usual, the guns started aiming and each side killed the other.

    From the ethical point of view human beings and trees should both be treated alike. “Save the trees” is fair enough – but so is “Save the human beings”.

    What the Torah has in mind is addressed by the classical commentators and much can be said on the subject. For today let us limit ourselves to a view that Ibn Ezra quotes and rejects, though one can take issue with him on this. He says, “What point is there in saying, ‘Don’t cut down a fruit tree because it is not like man who can flee from you’?”

    When you attack human beings of any kind, you are compromising the dictates of ethics. But human beings can at least (sometimes) escape and run away and survive, whilst trees are fixtures. Their legs are deeply rooted in the ground. They have no chance of running away and are doomed the moment you target them.

    This is an argument which has a bearing on the Holocaust. In the debate about whether the Sho’ah was unique, we should not forget that the viciousness of the enemy determined to cut off all means of escape for Jews.

    All Jews, they decided, had to be eradicated. No escapes, no exemptions, no exits. Total destruction, absolute annihilation. It was not warfare in which a soldier has a chance. It was like an attack on the trees. Fleeing was impossible.

    Baruch HaShem, some of European Jewry did survive, but that does not excuse one iota of the fiendish Nazi plan.

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