This Shabbat, we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, Sefer D’varim, the “Book of Words.” The “words” in this case are the ones a soon-to-die Moses used in his three-part farewell address to Israel.
Our Sages of Blessed Memory preferred calling the book “Mishneh Torah,” which literally means “Repetition of the Torah.” Deuteronomy, from the Greek, means that, as well. They called it that because it repeats many of the Torah’s earlier laws, while also adding new ones and amending others to meet changing circumstances.
What makes Deuteronomy so relevant to us is when it is read in synagogues. Of immediate relevance is the fast of Tishah B’Av, which begins on Wednesday at sundown and continues until sometime after sundown on Thursday.
Less immediate, perhaps, but of greater relevance, is that there are eight weeks left until the start of the High Holy Days. For Sefardim, in fact, there are just four weeks left before they begin to recite the penitential prayers (the Selichot) that lead into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Ashkenazim begin to recite these prayers shortly before Rosh Hashanah.)
The relevance to Tishah B’Av, which at its base marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, starts with the Book of Lamentations found in the third section of the Tanach, our Bible, and extends into the Talmud. These two calamities, we are told, occurred because the people had grievously sinned, with immorality, bloodshed, and injustice being among the most egregious of their misdeeds.
Immorality includes ignoring the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged in society. Bloodshed includes that, as well, in the sense that many people who have little of life’s basic necessities, especially ample and nutritious food to eat, do not live long, healthy lives. Tishah B’Av is meant in part to remind us of our responsibilities to all people — responsibilities that Deuteronomy imposes.
Those responsibilities take center stage during the High Holy Days, and as we move ever closer to them, the later chapters of Deuteronomy actually supply us with a roadmap to repentance, as I have noted in several columns over the years.
The laws in Deuteronomy include ethical ones — prohibiting dishonesty, requiring fairness in our personal and business relationships, protecting the underprivileged, and so forth — and various “religious” obligations, some of which are meant as devices to keep us focused on the Torah’s ethical and moral code.
Wearing tefillin on our arms and foreheads, for example, is meant to keep us from using our hands and arms to harm others or our brains to devise ways to do such harm. Putting a mezuzah on our doorposts is meant to remind us that everyone inside our doorposts must be treated with respect and must not be abused in any way. (See Deuteronomy 6:8-9.) Holy as Shabbat is, it is also the ultimate social justice commandment because everyone is entitled to the same day of rest as we are. (See Deuteronomy 5:12-15.)
Deuteronomy’s main focus, however, is on the Torah’s ethical and moral code, and especially on our responsibilities to society’s underprivileged. In Deuteronomy 14:28-29 we are commanded to tithe our produce at the end of “every third year…, but leave it within your communities, so that the Levite [and his family]…, as well as the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities shall come and eat their fill…. (This law is repeated in Deuteronomy 26:12.)
According to Deuteronomy 15:7-11, “If there is a needy person among you…, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet [his or her] need. Take care that you do not think wickedly to yourself that the seventh year is approaching, the year of remission [of all debts], and so you do evil by refusing to give anything to your needy kin…. Give readily and let your heart not regret doing so, for…there will never cease to be needy ones in your land….”
This responsibility of ours is emphasized even in an otherwise “religious” commandment — observing the Festival of Sukkot. Deuteronomy 16:13-14 commands this of each of us on Sukkot: “And you shall rejoice in your festival, together with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite [and his family], the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.” We must rejoice, but we must also share that rejoicing with society’s less fortunate.
Given that, how can we stand before God’s judgment on Yom Kippur if we ignore this obligation?
For that matter, how can we do so if we ignore Deuteronomy’s very specific commandment to protect all that God created?
“In making war against the city, do not destroy its food-bearing trees by wielding an axe against them for from them you will eat. Do not cut them down for is the tree of the field a person that it can escape from you into the besieged town? Only that tree that you know is not one that gives food, that one you may destroy and cut down in order to construct your war machines.” (See Deuteronomy 20:19-20.)
Let us parse those two verses. First, a rhetorical question forms the basis for this mitzvah: Is the tree of the field a person who can defend him or herself from being attacked?
Trees cannot defend themselves, but which trees are the ones that must be protected? The first verse talks specifically about trees that produce food for every creature, human or otherwise. Even if you need a battering ram to break down the gates of a town or ladders to scale its walls, that is not a sufficient, valid reason to destroy something that produces food, and by extension anything else that has purposeful value to anyone or anything.
Then comes the second verse. If there is a sufficient, valid reason to cut down trees, only the type of tree “that you know is not one that gives food, that one you may destroy and cut down.” In other words, we have to know for certain; the absence of any food itself proves nothing because it may not be the right season for that food. We have to be absolutely certain that it never produces food at any time during the year.
Even then, destruction is permissible only if there is a sufficient, valid reason to do so. Otherwise, even a tree that never produces food is protected. Trees that soak up dangerous carbon emissions from the atmosphere surely qualify as protected trees, especially in the face of global warming. In other words, all trees are protected.
From this verse comes an entire category of Jewish law known as bal tashchit, which means do not destroy. Simply put, bal tashchit is a ban on the pointless and purposeless destruction of anything that is useful to living creatures of any kind — human, animal, avian, or aquatic, or even anything that grows. Because of this verse, nearly 2,000 years ago a Babylonian sage named Rav Zutra declared as a matter of law that it was forbidden to burn any fuel too quickly, neither fossil fuels nor replenishable plant-based fuels. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67b.)
A 14th-century rabbi, Aharon Halevi of Barcelona, added another layer to this: recycling. He wrote that it “is the way of the pious and those of good deeds” to carefully adhere to the laws of bal tashchit; “not even a grain of mustard do they destroy, and they are grieved by any destruction they may see. If it is possible to save anything that is being spoiled, they spare no effort to do so.” (See his Sefer Ha-Chinuch No. 529.)
There is no need to do talmudic acrobatics to see in this a nearly 700-year-old mandate to recycle. If the pious spare no effort to save anything that is being spoiled, they would recycle. It follows that neither should we spare such effort. We too should recycle.
Deuteronomy also requires us to protect and consider caring for all non-human creatures. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 22:6-7 and 25:4.)
Shall we stand before God on Yom Kippur if we instead show disdain for all the works of God’s creation?
Deuteronomy requires trial by jury and the testimony of at least two eyewitnesses to convict someone. In effect, this law prohibits the use of circumstantial evidence alone and the use of a defendant’s confession. (See Deuteronomy 20.) It also declares that we must insist on justice that is righteous, equitable, kind, virtuous, pure, and pious. (See Deuteronomy 16:30.)
Deuteronomy 17:14-20 requires that the people elect their leaders and prohibits any leader from enriching him- or herself at the people’s expense. It also requires our leaders to see themselves as our equals, and never to act arrogantly toward us. Our leaders must bear at least some of the responsibility for crimes that occur on their watch (see Deuteronomy 21-1-4).
There is so much more packed into Deuteronomy’s chapters. At this time of year especially, those chapters deserve to be studied — and studied closely — if we are to understand why we exist as a people and how our lives should be lived.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org .