The Privileged Place of Fruit Trees

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog: dated February 26, 2012)

Once upon a time, we knew, deep inside, the magic of fruit trees.

The trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil in the Book of Genesis were not pine or poplar or cypress. They were fruit trees. The dove did not bring back an ash leaf or elm bough but an olive branch.

The laws of the Torah that urge us to avoid waste and limit what we disturb in the process of building, come from the command not to destroy fruit trees in the pursuit of war. Other trees may be made into battlements and weapons of war, but not fruit trees. In a time of siege, in a time of such need, fruit trees may not be destroyed or harvested for their wood.

The lesson: we may not destroy what we will need tomorrow in response to the desperations of today.

The rabbis extended this preferential treatment of fruit trees.

They asked, why does the Torah (Exodus 26:15) require the pillars of the Tabernacle be made out of acacia wood? To teach us a lesson. Though God could have chosen any tree for the construction of the Tabernacle, God chose the acacia, a tree with no beneficial fruit or product save the wood itself.

So too, we humans, when selecting wood to build our homes, should not choose a fruit tree. To do otherwise would engage in discretionary, avoidable destruction.

It is not hard to extract a more global message: in the act of building civilization, we must uproot bits of nature. That is unavoidable. But we should do so only with the most efficient of materials, the least disruptive of methods, and in ways that allow us to be nurtured as much tomorrow as we are today.

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