The Torah gives us a series of commands relating to wars. After the Torah the rabbis introduced a differentiation between an optional war, Milhemet Reshut, and an obligatory, self-defense war, Milhemet Mitzvah. When going out to war a special priest, Mashiah Milhama, anointed to lead them into war, would get up and give them a pep talk about fighting for God’s values and then ask anyone who had just got married, of just built a house or planted a vineyard to go home to enjoy what he had done instead of risking his life and possibly not returning. And anyone scared should go home so as not to undermine the will of the others to fight. They still had to help but from behind the lines of battle. And then they appointed the commanders (obviously, there was no standing army yet). The Talmud says that this only applied to an optional war. But when there was an existential threat “even a groom from under the hupah had to go out to war.
Apparently, this was an optional war here because the Torah goes on to say that one must “first offer peace” and only attack if this is refused. But where the battle was against the Canaanites, their ideological and existential enemies, the command was all out war to the end.
And finally, if one was laying siege to a city, one was not allowed to cut down fruit bearing trees. Seemingly, an appreciation of the value of trees that provide food. Taking years before they grew strong enough to give fruit, to cut them down was destructive and indeed counter -productive because it denied the victors the benefits too.
The Torah says on this issue “For man is like the tree of the field to suffer from a siege” (Deuteronomy 20.19). What does this mean? The commentators come up with all kinds of answers. I don’t know of another example where they disagree so much.
Here are some:
- Rashi – Why would you want the men fighting the siege to suffer because you have cut down all the fruit trees?
- Rashbam – The tree is not a person. It did not have an option to get involved.
- Ibn Ezra – The life of a human can be as short as a tree cut down in its prime and he needs whatever he can get for food.
- Seforno – A fruit tree is not a man that can help you win the siege.
And I would add, that the vulnerability of a man at war is like the vulnerability of a fruit tree only more so. And one must do all one can to preserve human life all the more so if one is also commanded to preserve the life of a fruit tree.