Destroying The Fruit Trees: What The Torah Teaches Us About The Baltimore Riots

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When something in society is broken, we are obligated to fix it.  It is a basic Jewish value, captured in the Torah:  “Tzedek tzedek tirdof “ – “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deuteronomy 16:20)   When we stand up to those who are determined to enshrine injustice, the Torah understands how overwhelming this task can be and instructs us accordingly:

Let your hearts not be faint; you shall not be afraid, and you shall not be alarmed, and you shall not be terrified because of them. (Deuteronomy 20:3)

According to the Torah, standing up to the unjust requires that we do everything in our power to “propose peace” (Deuteronomy 20:10) to them and pursue all means to bring about a just and lasting change.  If, after a great deal of effort, we cannot reason with those who seek to keep the scales of society unbalanced and they come after us to do us harm, the Torah insists to us that we have the right to stand up for justice with great strength, “besieging” those who pursue us. (Deuteronomy 20:12)

So yes, the Torah does believe that if there is no justice, there is no peace.  Yes, the Torah also supports the concept of “sticking it to the Man” when “the Man” is truly doing wrong.  Yes, the Torah even supports going to war against those who seek to do us harm and undermine our freedom and safety.  However, the Torah makes it explicitly clear that when we do find ourselves battling the pursuers of injustice we “shall not destroy (their) fruit trees by wielding an ax against them.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Whether it be in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City or any other location where people feel a terrible injustice has been committed, Judaism supports the right of these people to pursue justice. However, our tradition expects that before there is any confrontation, every means to “propose peace” must be tried. And, if a confrontation arises, Judaism demands that no fruit trees be destroyed.  Today, actual fruit trees are hard to come by in the streets of Baltimore and other cities where we have recently seen rioting and looting.  This being said, countless fruit trees were cut down this week in Baltimore.

In the Torah, a fruit tree was many things.  First and foremost it was a source of food.  It was also a source of income for the owner.  It provided shade and beauty.  In addition, the Torah asks: “is the tree of the field a man…” suggesting that fruit trees are symbols for other people.  The looting and rioting that have taken place in our country have destroyed neighborhoods. Grocery stores, pharmacies and other retail outlets that provide customers with life’s necessities and owners with a livelihood have been ransacked.  Boarded windows and burnt cars are left behind.  Innocent civilians and law enforcement officers have been hurt and killed.  Tragically, too many modern-day fruit trees have been cut down.

Pursuing justice is something that we are obligated to do.  Looting, rioting and senselessly destroying property and lives only make the scales of justice even more unbalanced.

As Shabbat begins, may peace prevail and may true justice be experienced by all.

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