13/14 Aug: Shoftim : Shabbat comes in 8:13 pm, ends 9:18 pm
Parashat Shoftim: Man is a Tree of the Field
When my grandmother arrived in England in 1960, it was midwinter. She was faced for the first time with leafless trees, because the trees of her girlhood in Singapore were evergreens. The sight of these seemingly lifeless trees was frightening to my grandmother, who assumed that there had been a great fire. It’s a story that’s often told with a smile in my family.
I’m thinking of this story this week, because Parashat Shoftim gives us an interesting and strange rule about trees: when we engage in war, we must not destroy fruit-bearing trees. The reasoning for this is given in this strange phrase: ki ha-adam eitz ha-sadeh. Depending on how we parse the sentence, this could be understood in two opposing ways. We could read it as: ‘Is the tree of the field a man?’ This would highlight our differences; wars are fought between people, not between men and trees. On the other hand, it could be translated as: ‘For man is a tree of the field.’ Instead of telling us how trees are not men, this could instead be reminding us of our similarities and interdependence.
Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg suggests that it is no calendrical coincidence that we read Parashat Shoftim at the beginning of the month of Elul, the beginning of the season of repentance. The Torah reminds us that man is a tree of the field because of the same lesson that my grandmother learnt in the winter of 1960: trees, like people, go through a yearly cycle. We sometimes lose our spiritual leaves – for Rabbi Greenberg, this is the despair of Tisha B’Av – but we can burst forth with life again.
May this prove to be a fruitful Elul.