The Living Wood

Parashat Shoftim
Netiya Meeting

At the invitation of Rabbi Noah Farkas to deliver the dvar Torah at this meeting of Netiya, after some mild fretting and grumbling,  I put on a kippah, dedicated myself to the divine mission, opened the text and began my journey into the roots.

It didn’t take long to discover that Shoftim was the quintessential Jewish tikkun olam’n - tree lovers parasha. Right in the first few p’sukim Equity, Equity you are to pursue. I recognized Everett Fox’s translation of the more common:  “Justice Justice Shalt Thou Pursue”.  A few pages later, I saw the familiar passage:

“When you besiege a town for many days
waging war against it, to seize it
you are not to bring ruin on its trees, by swinging away with an axe against them
for from them you eat
them you are not to cut down
for are the trees of the field human beings able to come against You in a siege?"

There it is. Since the Torah says we need to do Justice Justice;
and to protect the trees.
Those must be the Jewish things to do.
But that argument, at least to my ears, has grown stale.

I continued on my quest for deeper meaning and was grabbed by the Cities of Refuge which were to provide safe haven for the  “accidental murderer”

 “(He) who strikes down his neighbor with no foreknowledge
nor did he bear hatred towards him from yesterday and the day before,

The Torah then offers this specific example of an accidental murderer:

(He who) “comes upon his neighbor in the forest chopping wood
and his hand swings-away with an axe to cut wood
and the iron part slips off the wood part
and reaches his neighbor, so that he dies;"

Some observations and points to ponder: The chopping of wood, the hand swinging away with an axe, language shared in the description of the accidental murderer and the warning not to bring ruin on the fruit trees. Is the text creating a parallel between the life of the tree and the life of the human being? If so, how might we answer the question posed, “Are the trees of the field human beings?”

Another association: The word wood is used three times.  Several years ago, I wrote a dvar Torah on the Akedah- the binding of Isaac  - and specifically noted the repetition of the word etz – wood. In that parasha it was the Etz Olah – the wood of the offering up – the wood to which Yitzhak was bound – the wood textually bound to the ultimate test and its complex consequences. Should I ignore my mental association, or further explore the connections between the wood and the trees and the chopping and the cities of refuge and the accidental axe murderer

whose story continues..

“he may flee to one of these towns so that he may stay alive
lest the blood redeemer pursue the murderer”

and strike him dead

The word Rodef, came to mind. I didn’t remember what it meant but figured I must have learned it at some point connected to the Cities of Refuge.

Lost in a web of densely tangled roots, I set aside the text that it might absorb.

I probably grumbled to Renee about the task at hand and went on to other things.

When I found myself later in the day back at my nightstand, I couldn’t get myself to pick up the Torah. Instead, I was drawn to pick up a book of essays on the Life and Work of Wendell Berry that I recently borrowed from the library. I have read about Berry and knew him to be a champion of the earth and of humble living, but I didn’t know much about him. Leafing through the book, I came across an essay by, Scott Russell Sanders, one of my favorite authors.  I began to read.

Renee came in the room and offered in passing something along the lines of, this is a good parasha, it has Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. I knew the word tzedek, so I knew she was talking about Justice Justice thou shalt pursue. Pursue must be Tirdof. I asked, “Is that from the same root as rodef?”
Justice Justice you shall pursue. Lest the blood redeemer pursue the murderer. Rodef. The pursuer.

Pursuer, pursuing, tirdof, axe, wood chopping, chop, chop... chopsticks.



In China alone, an estimated 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used and thrown away annually  This adds up to 1.7 million cubic meters of timber or 25 million fully grown trees every year. For chopsticks!

When we kill those forests for chopsticks, forests are denuded and the soil erodes. Typhoons, like the recent Typhoon Morakot send rivers over their banks, saturate the land and trigger mudslides that bury villages. When we kill the trees, we become the accidental murderers of men, women and children in the floods attributed to our insatiable demand for all you can eat sushi at the annual synagogue gala.

Even if we give up the chopsticks or the sushi or we drive an electric car, or put solar panels on our houses or eat local organic vegetarian cuisine, Every day, the pursuit of our happiness inadvertently leads to the drowning of a villager, the lost home of a indigenous tribesman, the enslavement of a boy on a chocolate plantation, or the poisoning of a girl smelting bits of gold from our discarded computer display.

We seek only to harvest the wood, but we can not stop the axe head from slipping off of the helve.

We who care, who seek to pursue the good for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world – are pursued not by a blood avenger – but by our own conscience. To where can we escape if we are to live as righteous human beings in the world. Must we run off to the wilderness and live off of the land. Even then, our axe will slip. Where is our city of refuge?

In his essay Scott Russel Sanders quotes Wendell Berry:

“My aim is to imagine and live out a decent and preserving relationship to the earth... If one disagrees with the nomadism and violence of our society, then one is under an obligation to take up some permanent dwelling place and cultivate the possibility of peace and harmlessness in it”  -

A permanent dwelling place in which is cultivated the possibility of peace and harmlessness -  A City of Refuge from that force of our conscience pursuing our demise. A sanctuary from which we might serve as caretakers of the land and caretakers of the soul.

Like trees of the field, yes, trees of the field, we shall take root in our yards and our communities and our texts, drawing nourishment from the life force that grounds us to our place and connects us to each other in a branching vital network. We shall grasp strength from the example of the halutzim whose work continues through the building of reservoirs and the greening of the Negev.  We shall grow into the light of writers like Wendell Berry who inspired Scott Russell Sanders and Michael Pollan as well as all of the modern day prophets whose teachings of light have brought us here today.

And when the obstructions are cleared through the pursuit of justice, the life force will flow from root through trunk and branch to leaf, our wisdom will take to the wind, and the fruits of the living wood, the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life, will ripen.


And one more connection.  It struck me that the name of the typhoon, Morakot, sounded like it could be a Hebrew word. Mora is teacher – but Kot.
I googled “Kot Hebrew” and arrived at an essay by Alexandar Kott titled “Etymology (Origins) of KOTT, KOT, COTT Surnames in Jewish Eastern Europe”

From his essay:

“A Hebrew Abbreviation
I found two families in Israel with the surname KOT (spelled in Hebrew letters kuf-vav-tet) who both have roots in what is now the city of Kaunas (Kovno) in modern Lithuania. Although the families do not know of any common ancestors, both have family traditions that this surname is an abbreviation of the Hebrew phrase "kadosh ve-tahor," meaning "holy and pure."
One of the family's lore has it that the surname originated from an ancestor who died in a case of  "kidush ha-shem" (martyrdom...) thereby earning the posthumous appellation "holy and pure.”

This would render the name of the typhoon, Mora-kot into Teacher – Holy and Pure.
Perhaps the least we can do is to elevate the nameless villagers lost to the flood by the axe that slipped from our hand by ascribing to them martyrdom. In the name of our Teacher, Holy and Pure.