Shoftim: An Ax to Grind

The Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 5:10 teaches that on the third day of creation Gibborim, “strong ones,” were created. According to the Midrash, iron was one of the “strong ones” that was created, along with the mountains where it is deposited. The Midrash states that on the third day, the trees began to tremble. The trees were nervous that their wood, when combined with the iron, would be used for axes to cut them down. The iron said to the trees: “Don’t worry! As long as none of your wood enters me, no one will be harmed.”

Humanity was the missing link in this conversation between the iron and the trees. The destructive strength of the iron depended on the ability of humans to fashion it into a tool of destruction. In Parashat Shoftim, Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael that when they are in a war against a city, they must not destroy its trees and use an ax against them. Bnai Yisrael may eat of the trees but they may not cut them down. The only trees that Bnai Yisrael are permitted to cut down are non fruit-bearing trees. (Dvarim 20:19-20)

  • Why do you think this law against cutting down trees specifically applied to wartime?
  • What do you think was the rationale behind Bnai Yisrael’s permission to cut down non fruit-bearing trees?
  • What do fruit trees represent to humanity?
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