It was a day hollowed of warmth and full of February’s wrath. The wind hurled mists of ice and powder drifts against the light infantry of hats, coats and doubled scarves. If New England wind had teeth, that day those teeth would have shorn flesh off the bone.
Inside a toasty restaurant in Boston, a door bell chimed, and a customer entered accompanied by a blast of cold air. A first glance revealed a worn coat, patched and frayed. Looking closer, one noticed a faded denim shirt that hung untucked over torn jeans. Above this mess, there stood a head of matted hair. Below the hair, a man’s face smudged with grease and caked in old sweat. The fellow would not have looked out-of-place asking for quarters outside a coffee shop. As it was, he was shown a seat and handed a menu. Nervous and flustered, I watched him flip pages for several minutes till a neighboring woman helped him order.
So gracious was he for her help that he announced to the restaurant his desire to pay for her meal. “I won $7000 today in the lottery. Let me buy you lunch. Actually, I want to buy everyone lunch,” he went on. The woman smiled but declined, “No, you keep your money.” Then the man stood up and repeated the offer to each of us in the room. We each shook our heads. He needed the money more than any of us. If it seemed right at the time to refuse the gift of a destitute man, as I left the restaurant, I couldn’t help but feel that the day had grown much colder.
In this week’s portion, Shoftim, we find a variety of laws related to the waging war. For example: “When you lay siege to a city for many days, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the (fruit) trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; because you may eat of them, do not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” (Deuteronomy 20.19) Your war is with men not trees.
Interestingly, the commandment to spare the fruit tree is understood by some as a lesson in compassion. What has this tree done to you? Rooted to the ground it can neither surrender nor flee, why should it share the sorry fate of the city? (Rashi on 20.19) In contrast, there are those who see the commandment as being preoccupied with human welfare. Fruit trees sustain us with their fruit. What purpose is there in using them for bulwarks and battering rams when non-fruit trees can be used instead? (Ibn-Ezra, Hirsch) Indeed, the general prohibition against needless destruction ( Bal Tashchit) is learned from the above verse. (Cf.Torah Temima)
Yet, I would like to suggest a third reason for the prohibition. When laying siege, the Israelite army is also commanded to first offer the city ‘terms of peace.’ If the inhabitants accept, surrendering themselves as servants, the inhabitants must be spared. If not, war is waged. (20:10-12) In a similar vein, the fruit tree has essentially surrendered. It has offered its service: the fruit of its limbs. It would be criminal to fell what gives freely and cannot flee. “Is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?”
Thinking back to that day in Boston, some eight or nine years ago, a beggar blew in from the street, he offered us fruit in the very heart of winter. How excited he must have been to have an opportunity to feed others for a change. But we refused. We took an axe and felled him like a tree.
It’s easy to know when to give. It is much harder to know when to accept.