Don't destroy!


"When you make war against a city for many days to capture it, don't destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat from the tree, but do not cut it down. For is the tree of the field a man that he should flee from you and suffer in the siege? Why should you destroy it?" (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

Jacob's phenomenal success at breeding flocks aroused the greedy Laban's ire. Sensing serious danger, Jacob hurriedly took all his family and possessions and fled. Laban chased after him, but God appeared to Laban in a dream and told him not to harm Jacob in any way.

Saved from Laban, Jacob made his way home to the Land of Israel together with his long, straggling caravan of wives, little children, camp-followers and thousands upon thousands of camels, donkeys, oxen, sheep and goats.

Rebecca had hoped that Jacob's extended absence from home would cool Esau's fury against him for taking the birthright and the blessings. However, Jacob knew that such a grudge would not easily be forgotten. True to character, Jacob sought to avoid conflict. He wanted to make peace with Esau, hoping to placate him with a massive gift of livestock representing the very material wealth Esau craved. But as Jacob arrived at the border of the Land of Israel, news came that Esau, vengeful as ever, was advancing with an army of four hundred warriors.

Jacob now faced the greatest challenge of his life. Against Laban his struggle had been to remain truthful and honest in the face of Laban's trickery and lies. But Esau's threat was of total physical annihilation. Laban's attack had been on the level of Chokhmah-Wisdom and Binah-Understanding. Esau's was on the level of sheer Gevurah: power and brute force.

For years Jacob had been laboring to build his House. Now Esau wanted to raze everything "down to the very foundations" (Psalms 137:7) for no other reason than that he was jealous because Jacob had shown himself the more worthy. Esau, embodiment of unholy Gevurah, is the archetypal killer and destroyer. Killing the innocent is stringently forbidden by the Torah. So is wanton destruction, as it says: "Do not destroy!" (Deuteronomy 20:19).

The prohibition of Bal Tashchit, "Do not destroy", is directly relevant to us today as we witness the waste and destruction of vital Earth resources by governments, businesses and private individuals. Our economy actually encourages unnecessary consumption and waste. The worldwide destruction of resources is a threat to our very survival.

The Torah prohibition of needless waste and destruction derives from a passage about proper conduct during military operations. Nobody with any sense wants to go to war, but even war is necessary and justified in self-defense against aggressive enemies who refuse to co-exist in peace and harmony. Yet even when campaigning against such enemies, it is forbidden to destroy valuable resources in their possession. The Torah gives as an example the fruit-trees surrounding a city that is under siege.

"When you make war against a city for many days to capture it, don't destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat from the tree, but do not cut it down. For is the tree of the field a man that he should flee from you and suffer in the siege? Why should you destroy it?" (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

Since the Torah prohibits the destruction of enemy property even at the height of war, it follows that the needless waste or destruction of property owned by those who are not enemies is certainly forbidden. A person is not even allowed to destroy his own property, let alone someone else's, and certainly not Earth resources that belong to everyone.

Man against the serpent

Advancing against Jacob, Esau was "wielding the ax" in order to "cut down the tree" to its very roots. The tree was the Tree of Life, as embodied in Jacob and his family. It was the Tree of the Souls going back to the first man, Adam. This Tree had been carefully nurtured and cultivated by Abraham, Isaac and now Jacob in order to bring forth its fruits, the future generations of Israel. "Do not cut the tree down. For is the tree of the field a man...?" The Hebrew words also mean: "For the Man (Adam) is the Tree of the field".

Jacob's struggle against Esau was the continuation of a very ancient struggle. It was the struggle of life and creation against the forces of death and destruction. In order for the creation to exist within God's infinite light, there had to be limits and boundaries. The entire creation came about through successive "contractions" of God's light, as discussed in the Kabbalah. The limiting boundary of creation is destruction. The limiting boundary of life is death. The forces of destruction and death are embodied in Esau.

Jacob's struggle against Esau was a replay of Adam's encounter with the Serpent. God's plan in creating Adam was that he should earn Godly perfection -- "good" -- through his own efforts. In order to confront man with a challenge requiring work and effort, God created a world containing evil as well as good. Man's work would be to reject evil and choose good. But in order to make the challenge real, evil had to be made to look good. This is why there had to be a Serpent, the lying Tempter who turns Accuser: Satan.

With deceit and lies the serpent tricked Adam and Eve into eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, leading to their fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden of Eden out into a world of struggle, pain and death. All Adam's subsequent generations had the task of rectifying his sin in order to return to grace and create a veritable Garden of Eden in this world.

Abraham and Isaac had begun the task. Now it was Jacob's turn. He had already spent twenty years of bitter exile outside the "Garden", the Land of Israel, "atoning", as it were, for Adam's sin. Jacob had survived Laban's onslaught of serpentine trickery and lies. Now he had to confront Esau, exemplar of the "Fallen Man" who lives only to gratify his own selfish lusts, unafraid to strike, wound, maim and kill all who dare cross his path, plundering, raping and grabbing whatever he wants.

What the Serpent had stolen from Adam through cunning was the Godly intelligence man needs in order to stand up against his own lower urges. This divine wisdom, reclaimed by Abraham and Isaac, was itself the birthright Jacob took from Esau -- also with "cunning". It was when Jacob and Esau had been fifteen that Esau on day came in from the field ravenously hungry and Jacob "gave him the soup" -- i.e. provided Esau with the material "food" he wanted to consume in exchange for the spiritual birthright that Esau spurned (Genesis 25:29-34).

It was also with "cunning" that Jacob later "stole" the blessings just as Isaac was about to give them to Esau. On Rebecca's insistence, Jacob dressed up in Esau's clothes and went in to Isaac first (ibid. 27:1-40). Only with holy "cunning" could Jacob outwit the subtle serpent incarnate in Esau.

"A gift, prayer and war"

As Esau advanced with his four hundred armed warriors, what was Jacob to do? The last thing he wanted was a violent confrontation that could only lead to bloodshed. Jacob was not a coward. Having sat in the tent of Isaac as well as Abraham, Jacob possessed holy Gevurah-strength as well as Chessed-kindness. But Jacob's mission was not to prevail merely by destroying all opposition. It was to create synthesis and harmony among opposing forces, enabling them to co-exist in dynamic balance, each playing its proper role without overstepping its bounds and interfering with any other. Jacob's mission was the opposite of war and destruction: it was to let peace and justice prevail.

But how could Jacob make peace with an Esau who was nursing a venomous grudge? How could Jacob transmute this age-old conflict into a win/win situation in which Jacob and Esau could both survive and play their role in mankind's work of bringing the world back to God?

The key to Jacob's wisdom was simplicity. To create balance he used balance. "Jacob prepared himself with three things: a gift, prayer and war" (Rashi on Genesis 32:40). On the one hand he sought to placate Esau with a magnificent display of Chessed-kindness, sending him a fat gift of goats, sheep, cattle, oxen and donkeys, the material wealth Esau loved. At the same time Jacob prepared himself for war so as to be able to take on Esau directly if necessary with Gevurah-power.

But even as he took these practical steps, Jacob put his trust not in his own strategies and efforts but in God. True to his upward-looking center-column quality of Tiferet-harmony, Jacob turned to God for help through prayer. In the words of Jacob's descendant, David, as he faced Goliath: "You come against me with the sword, the spear and the javelin. But I come against you in the name of HaVaYaH of Hosts, the God of Israel" (Samuel I, 17:45).

Jacob's prayer

"And Jacob said: God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, HaVaYaH, who told me, Go to your land and your birthplace and I will deal well with you. I am too small for all the kindnesses and all the truth you have done for Your servant, for with my stick I crossed this Jordan and now I have become two camps. Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid he might come and strike me and kill the mothers with the children...." (Genesis 32:10-12).

Jacob's prayer is simple and direct. God Himself had told Jacob to return home. Jacob was well aware that everything he had was God's gift. Before asking for anything, he first acknowledged all God's kindnesses until now. But with his caravan of mothers and little children, Jacob was most vulnerable, and he was afraid. He told God exactly what he felt and asked for precisely what he needed: Help! "Save me from the hand of Esau!"

In essence, Jacob's struggle against Esau is the struggle of the soul to come to its destiny by spiritualizing this material world of Asiyah, Action, in which we live. (The Hebrew letters of Esau spell out Aso, a root meaning "doing, acting".) The endless temptations and obstacles in this world are all a test for the soul, whose task is to elevate this refractory material world in the service of God. As long as we are in this world we have to function physically, eat, drink, make a living, reproduce and so on. The question is: do we allow our material needs and urges to dominate our lives, or can we find ways to transmute our very physical functions into avenues of ascent to God?

The mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah show us how to follow a Godly path in all the different situations we face in our lives in this world. But knowing what we ought to do is not enough. We have to get ourselves to do it. The dictates of the material world can be so powerful. The tests can be overwhelming. The material world has a degree of Gevurah-Power that the soul can only overcome with the help of God's superior strength. It is up to us to invoke that strength and power through prayer -- crying out to God for help -- in order to "save Jacob and redeem him from a hand too strong for him" (from the Evening Prayer).

When Jacob went into Isaac disguised as Esau in order to receive the blessings, the blind Isaac felt Jacob's skin-swathed arms and said, "The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau" (Genesis 27:22). In this world the soul, "Jacob", is clothed in the skin and bones of the physical body: "Esau". For our mission here is act in the material world of Asiyah with our very hands: "The hands are the hands of Esau". But Esau's hands have the power to crush the soul unless "the voice is the voice of Jacob!" Only by using the faculty that distinguishes man from the animals, voice and speech -- Prayer -- can Jacob, the soul, prevail over Esau's materialism.

The material world of Asiyah is at the "feet", the bottom of the whole system of worlds upon worlds created by God as a means of ascent for the soul. In this world, the soul, Jacob, Yaakov, is at the EKeV, "foot" of the universe. His mission is to find Godliness even at the lowest levels of creation. This he does by viewing all things in the radiant light of Chokhmah-Wisdom, represented in the letter Yud, root of all the twenty-two letters of the Aleph-Bet. Thus Jacob's name is made up by joining the Yud to EKeV (the heel): Ya-AKoV.

When Jacob and Esau, the "twins", were born, "The first one came out all red like a hairy mantle all over, and they called his name Esau. And afterwards his brother came out, and his hand was holding the heel of Esau, and he called his name Jacob" (Genesis 25:25-6). From the very beginning Jacob had his "hand" (YaD = Yud, Chokhmah-Wisdom) at the heel (EKeV) of Esau, Asiyah, the heel and foot of all the worlds. That was why he was called Ya-AKoV.

Now, years later, as Jacob readied himself to confront Esau and his four hundred armed warriors, he again used his "hand", the YaD (= YuD) of Chokhmah-Wisdom -- Prayer (see Exodus 17:12 and Targum Onkelos).

Jacob's struggle was not with the physical Esau and his men but with Esau's spiritual root, the "Angel" that gives the material world its power over us. It was night -- the time of faith -- after Jacob took his family across into the Land of Israel, that he wrestled with the Angel:

"And he arose in the night and took his two wives and his two maid-servants and his eleven children and he passed over the crossing of the Jabok. He took them and brought them across the river and he brought over what he had. And Jacob was left alone and a man struggled with him until the dawn came up. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket and Jacob's hip was strained as he wrestled with him. He said, Send me away for the dawn has risen. But Jacob said, I will not send you away unless you bless me. He said, What is your name. He said, Jacob. He said, Your name will no longer called Jacob but Israel, for you have struggled (SaRita) with angels and with men and you have prevailed" (Genesis 32:23-29).

"And Jacob was left alone". According to tradition, "he forgot some small jars and went back for them" (Rashi ad loc.). Jacob and his family were in mortal peril, yet Jacob went back across the river to fetch a few forgotten jars even though they were probably only earthenware pots, which for the ancients were like today's throwaway plastic. But Jacob stood for the very opposite of Esau's destructiveness and waste! "Do not destroy!" The physical world is not a lush smorgasbord laid on for us to plunder, waste and destroy as we please. Material property is precious. Even the smallest things should be treated with respect and care. Our very blood and sweat go into gaining our material needs in this world. If we destroy our property and resources, we are destroying ourselves. Our task in this world is to sanctify and elevate the material, for by doing so, we sanctify and elevate ourselves.

The "man" with whom Jacob wrestled was Esau's guardian angel (Bereishit Rabah 77:3). Jacob's struggle is the unremitting struggle of the soul in a material world that constantly threatens to get out of hand and overwhelm us. But Jacob would not give up even when the angel caught him at the hip. There are times when the material world locks us in its grip. People go under economically. They become weak, sick and disabled. They die. But regardless of the challenge, Jacob persists, holding his hand -- the Yad of Chokhmah-Wisdom -- to the heel, the EKeV, the world of Asiyah, in order to use it only for holiness and spiritual ascent. Jacob does not yield. He knows that all aspects of Asiyah can be elevated by turning to God in prayer.

Through his sheer persistence Jacob overcame the Angel. He would not let him go until he blessed him. The Angel acknowledged that Jacob had prevailed and gave him the name Israel, YiSRa-EL, for "you struggled with angels and with men and you have prevailed." Having defeated the angel, it was easy for Jacob to prevail over Esau, which he did not with military might but wisdom, humility, gifts, respect and honor, magnanimity and the spirit of reconciliation.



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