Friday, August 25, 2017

Poetry on the march: Is a tree man that you should besiege it?

By Professor Steven Schecter

Judges and officers shall you have above you, the Torah says. Judges to meet out justice and officers to lead you into battle, because without a sovereign state there will be no justice and without a stout army there will be no state. But even when it comes to matters military the Torah is not short on literary splendor.

When the nation of Israel is to go forth to battle, the officers are commanded to winnow the troops. A man who has built a new house but not dedicated it, a man who has planted a vineyard but not eaten of its fruit, a man who has betrothed a wife but not enjoyed her – all shall stay at home. As for a man that is fearful and faint-hearted, let him go and return to his house, lest his fear contaminate others, though the Torah puts it thus: lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart. One need look no farther than this parasha to see where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Henry V’s peroration.

As for the rules of engagement and victory, the Torah is equally eloquent, even if eloquence does not temper the severity of the war aims. When you fight a city and it sues for peace, then its people shall serve thee, but their lives shall be spared. But if it fights you then you must besiege it, and when God gives you victory, you shall smite the males with the edge of the sword but the women and children and all the possessions thereof shall be yours. With one exception, Moses reminds the children of Israel. That rule is good for cities that lie far from your borders. But for those that lie within the boundaries of the land God has promised you, no one shall be spared and no booty taken, for their inhabitants are an abomination and must be utterly uprooted. Wise words then and wise words now; pertinent then and pertinent now. For so the Palestinians and the Muslim umma in whose name they speak regard the Jews of contemporary Israel and so they deserve to be paid back in kind; though unlike its neighbors, contemporary Israel need not and ought not exterminate its enemies, but simply expel them from the land they pollute. They are too proximate to be dealt with kindly, as history has shown time and again. Samuel warned Saul and he paid no attention. British military officers warned the Colonial Office, but it paid no attention. Jabotinsky warned the Zionists and they paid no heed. And so it goes, the present Israeli government being no exception, even as its leader pays lip service to Jabotinsky, though it is debatable whether he reads the Torah as he is enjoined to do in this parasha. For if the king is supposed to read the Torah so that he may learn to fear the Lord and keep all the words of this law and these statutes, why should a Prime Minister not do likewise?

And lest the contemporary reader think the Torah is but a blood-thirsty text, he or she has but to read on to see that the siege warfare of ancient Israel is tempered with mercy and its embrace of war is far from enthusiastic. When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, the Torah says, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them. Thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of field man that it should be besieged of thee? What a sentence! the reader thinks, stopped in his or her tracks. Does it not give pause? one invariably asks, inviting the reader to consider how men wreak havoc far greater than does nature and enjoining us to think how to rein in the impulse to strike out and avenge? Indeed, is not this sentence the very impetus behind the Israeli Defense Forces’ code of ethics, which makes of every Israeli soldier a remarkable human being in the midst of such trying circumstances? One has only to remember the battle of Jenin and the slander of Israeli war crimes spread by Arab leaders echoed in the western press to see the difference reading the Torah makes even to the conduct of war. For even Palestinian gangsters who escaped the carnage later told the Egyptian press how the Israeli soldiers were like cannon fodder to them, going slowly from house to house so as not to harm innocent civilians while Fatah snipers took lethal aim and mowed them down.

Is the tree of field man that it should be besieged of thee? This simple question, this line of poetry, shines, as does the entire text in which it appears, millennia later. Yet it ought not to be forgotten that it is only one side of the equation, of which implacable hostility to nations that indulge in child sacrifice is the other. Gratitude to trees and mercy toward the human beings trees nourish are the more enduring values, as God taught Jonah as he sat under the gourd outside Nineveh and bemoaned its loss. But for such kindness to endure and irrigate our lives, the societies that nurture these values must be protected from those who seek to destroy them. Justice still needs military protection, just as Israel still needs to send in its army to Judea and Samaria and clean up the land.

Shabbat shalom!

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