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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Shoftim

Parashat Shoftim

Elul 2, 5780 – August 22, 2020

Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Shoftim, which is Hebrew for “judges.” In this portion, Moshe Rabbeinu instructs the Jewish people to establish just courts, which frames the entirety of the parashah through the lens of justice. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (16:20) is a verse that seems to echo in the mind, as it does throughout the pages, as we read about laws minimizing war, cities of refuge and unresolved murder, prohibited worship, and laws surrounding idolatry and sorcery. Commentators on this portion ensure to define the terms ‘judges’ and ‘officers’ by distinguishing between their different roles. In the opening line we read: “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates [in all your cities]” – and this led Rashi to maintain that judges are the ones who decide the law and officers are those who enforce the law.[1] On a literal level, within the narrative, these appear to be distinct positions with separate duties. But there are two sides to Rashi’s commentary in relation to law enforcement. One involves the execution of the law, which maintains separate roles for the judge and officer. And the other involves active promotion of the law to encourage lawful and righteous behavior.[2] In this latter point, both the judge and officer share in the responsibility of enforcing the law by encouraging people to be law abiding. Moshe tells us that, throughout the generations, certain individuals will be given the authority to interpret and exercise the laws of the Torah. And in (17:10) we read that “you shall be careful to do according to everything that they will teach you.” But there’s a more nuanced application of this directive which is more participatory than simply obeying those who are in power. In a teaching given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, he maintains that this is a principle that should penetrate “your gates” – that is to say, “when a person learns a new Torah directive, it should penetrate all [of the] faculties.”[3] The phrase “your gates” is likened to the sensory organs that “form the interface between a person and [their] environment.”[4] The idea here is that justice, and its active promotion, should integrate itself into your thinking and way of being. Parashat Shoftim is requesting that we advocate for – and assume – a sense of embodied justice, and the Torah uses nature imagery to emphasize this lesson.

This Torah portion is actually framed by two verses about trees. In (16:21), after the opening verses, we read: “You shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree – any tree – near the Altar of Hashem your G-d.” And, in (20:19), before the closing verses, we read: “When you besiege a city…do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down.” Within this second verse is the biblical commandment of Bal Tashchit, meaning “do not destroy (or waste),” which prohibits the cutting down of fruit-bearing trees during wartime. This is a commandment that has long been linked to a Jewish environmental ethic, as it prohibits the needless destruction of the natural world. On the one hand, one could consider this law anthropocentric[5] – people need food to eat, and if you cut down the source of that food when you invade a piece of land, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot. But on the other hand, the Torah is clearly recognizing the relationship between human health and the fertility of the land – that trees and humans are both part of a larger system that needs to be cared for and respected. But the rabbis of the Talmud understood this verse to extend far beyond fruit trees and war; it is considered a principle about not wasting resources and not destroying anything that may be of use. Bal Tashchit is a prohibition that extends into many aspects of modern life, including energy usage, clothing, water, and money. “For example, Maimonides explains that a Jew is forbidden to ‘smash household goods, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a spring, or destroy articles of food.’”[6] Other rabbis insist that this includes not wasting water when others are in need, or destroying any edible food – period. Some even insist that this commandment encompasses overeating – that it’s actually a double transgression, because when one overeats, one 1) first wastes food and 2) second harms the body.[7] The takeaway here is that the Jewish understanding of environmental protection is multi-faceted. It involves not destroying or degrading the natural environment. This is, fundamentally and categorically, wasteful and careless behavior. But it also involves cultivating a greater sensitivity to the modes of conduct that cause harm on both individual and collective levels. What we choose to consume in our personal lives does have an effect on the greater whole. This is a very powerful and holistic idea that we find in the Torah. When we waste food, we also waste other resources spent on water, energy, and transportation, which could all have been directed towards more productive goals. There are millions of people that are literally starving, and this commandment of Bal Tashchit is asking us to consider that suffering in relation to the wasteful habits that we have in our own life. In this way, a verse about not cutting down trees during wartime becomes a metaphor for the continual struggle, and conflict, within ourselves.

The other verse, from (16:21) involving forbidden (or idolatrous) trees, is about not planting a tree that is intended for worship. From a traditional rabbinic point of view, Ramban describes that “it was the custom of idolaters to landscape their temples to attract worshipers.”[8] The lesson is about the substance of what occurs within the temple, rather than on its exterior aesthetics. But this verse is also asking us to consider the connection between humans, or our humanity, and a tree. Trees are quite different than us humans, or even animals. They can’t move, or communicate, in the same ways. They spend the entirety of their lives rooted in one place. As a consequence, they remain fixed to the source of their life energy, surviving by spreading their roots deep into the ground, and “growing taller than any other member of the Animal Kingdom.”[9] In Chasidic philosophy, “the ‘tree’ within humans are that part of our make-up which are: a.) the most deep rooted in the soul; and consequentially, b.) they are the most powerful. And they are: our character and emotions.”[10] This is quite contrary to the intellect, which doesn’t have such a strong rooting in the soul, and like animals that are more mobile, it wanders around without having “fixed roots.”[11] The lesson is that it’s not easy to cultivate a strong character and emotions. In the modern world, we value the intellect and rationality – not simply as a cognitive skill but as a moral value. Planting an idolatrous tree is comparable to having no connection with our inner character and emotions. And it’s about devoting oneself to the intellect, rather than to the transformation of the inner self. Earlier in the essay, I introduced the idea that Parashat Shoftim is requesting (of us) that we assume a sense of embodied justice. And that the Torah uses nature imagery to emphasize this lesson. When considered in relation to the ecological crisis, many of us think that we’re making real changes in our life by converting our ideology. We may understand that the earth is in trouble, and that we need to reform, but the intellectual conversion is often used to justify the evasion of embodied change. Environmental justice demands that we reconnect to the emotions and character traits that reside deep within our soul, like the roots of a tree, so that we can then transform the world for good. We have to revitalize values that are deeply rooted within ourselves – the emotive qualities and soulful values that actively promote the demonstration of justice.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Promotion of the law and nature imagery, the biblical commandment of Bal Tashchit, and devoting oneself to embodied change as a form of environmental justice


Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. "Nature in the Sources of Judaism." Daedalus (Cambridge, Mass.) 130, no. 4 (2001): 99-124.

[1] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1236 [2] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1236-7 [3] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1237 [4] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1237 [5] Tirosh-Samuelson, "Nature in the Sources of Judaism,” p.106 [6] Mishnah Torah, Law of Kings 6:10 – Sourced from: [7] Orach Meisharim 29:6 – Sourced from: [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.1025 [9] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1260 [10] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1260 [11] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p. 1260

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