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Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9: The Quest For Rootedness

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Flickr: gtall1
Flickr: gtall1

According to rabbinic tradition, this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, contains no fewer than 41 distinct commandments -- a disproportionate number considering that there are 54 discrete portions in the annual Jewish lectionary cycle. Among the many mitzvot found in this reading is the famous command known in Hebrew as Bal (or Lo) Tashchit, "Do not destroy":

When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it and to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down. For are the trees of the field human, who might withdraw before you into the besieged city? (Deuteronomy 20:19)

At first blush, this commandment seems to be limited to a specific moment in time, a specific set of circumstances -- when one is waging war, in the heat of a battle. Yet, our sages take creative license and use this particular passage as the authoritative source for the far-reaching dictate against wanton destruction of God's creation.

In fact, the 19th century neo-Orthodox commentator, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, goes so far as to categorize Lo Tashchit as "the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which God has given them as masters of the world." He goes on to say, "Only if you use the things around you for wise humane purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mentsch, a true human being" (Horeb, 56:397).

Rabbi Hirsch's powerful declaration got me thinking about the term mentsch and how our biblical citation might be instructive in helping us live more humanely in today's world. "For are the trees of the field human...?" What if we were to read this verse (as the medieval biblical exegete Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra suggests) as a statement rather than as a question? What might we learn about the often elusive quest for mentschlichkeit ("humaneness" or living as a mentsch) from the words "For the trees of the field are like a human"?

Surely, there are many lessons to be gleaned from this comparison. Among them is the notion of rootedness and the challenge many of us face living in a "Bowling Alone" era of isolation and alienation. Just as a tree cannot survive without its subterranean life-preserving roots, so too the human will wither and ultimately perish without deep sources of sustenance.

And yet, as the French thinker Simone Weil indicates, "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define." Weil rightly notes that we feed these roots through "real, active and natural participation in the life of a community, which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future" (The Need for Roots, p. 41).

Being a mentsch -- like being a tree -- means recognizing, honoring and nurturing our roots. It demands that we consciously set aside the urge to be self-centered and self-absorbed. It calls on us to battle the ubiquitous seduction to live our lives in spiritual, emotional or civic isolation and instead seek out ways to create meaningful relationships and bonds with others, in community. It requires that we proclaim and demonstrate the dignity of our particularity while at once acknowledging the necessity of universality, our fundamental interconnectedness.

It also necessitates living in ways that are respectful of the physical places from which we emerged and the environments in which we live. Like with human communities, we must come to a deeper understanding that we live interdependently with all of creation. Otherwise, our shared roots will dry up and life will wither.

The "tree of the field" which serves as the source for the biblical injunction of Lo Tashchit, "Do not destroy," compels us to pursue radical and ennobled rootedness so that we can attain the status of mentschen and thus enjoy the Divine blessings of growth and vitality that have graciously been gifted to us by the Root of all Roots and the Source of all Sources.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

Around the Web

Deuteronomy 16:18 - The Jewish Theological Seminary

Deuteronomy 16 / Hebrew - English Bible / Mechon-Mamre

Shoftim in a Nutshell - Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9 - Shoftim - Parsha

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 (English Standard Version) - Bible Gateway

Shoftim (parsha) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia