Friday, August 15, 2014

Comedy Tonight, Tragedy Tomorrow: Robin Williams, Jewish Humor and Depression - Eqev 5774

The opening number in the classic Broadway musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” features the lyric, “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight." In the course of honoring the memory of Robin Williams, we might (as Gene Wilder says repeatedly in the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) “Strike that, reverse it.” The comedy that flowed oh-so-naturally and easily from the Mr. Williams’ heart is made bittersweet in the light of his having taken his own life this past week; for much of his life, while he was entertaining us all, he was battling inner demons. His legacy will always be comedy first, tragedy second. But his death should signal to us that the time has come to address the issue of depression, to educate ourselves, and to remove the veil of shame for those afflicted with this horrible disease.

But the proper way to celebrate Mr. Williams’ life is to invoke his humor. And, while we’re at it, to remind ourselves that the Jews practically invented comedy!

One of the many clips of Robin Williams that surfaced on the Internet this week contained the following bit:

“I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think that you killed all the funny people?’”

We do not tend to think of our ancient Jewish texts - the Torah, the Talmud, and so forth - as being funny. Today’s parashah, Eqev, for example? Not a funny word in it. Most of it is about our obligations to uphold God’s commandments, and that if we fail to do so, bad things will happen. There is also a brief reprise of the Molten Calf story. Not funny at all.

And yet Jewish life and culture has produced many, many funny people. Allen Konigsberg, known to the world as Woody Allen, once quipped that the Jewish response to centuries of persecution was that we learned to talk our way out of a tight spot. A brief look at Comedy Central’s list of the top 100 stand-up comedians yields four Jews in the top ten (Allen is at number 4; local boy Andy Kaufman at number 33). One surprising outcome of the Pew Research study last fall about American Jews is the following: In responding to the statement, “[blank] is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me,” 42% said, “Having a good sense of humor.” (It was the sixth item on the list.)

So where did this wonderful sense of humor come from, if not from our ancient texts? Perhaps, along the lines of Woody Allen’s statement, persecution and oppression indeed produced the Jewish smart-aleck. With all the misery in Jewish history, how could we not respond with humor? Comedy is, after all, human failure; Mel Brooks once defined comedy as follows: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Let’s face it: Jewish history is riddled with human failure. We understand comedy.

And of course, we are masters of the word, the People of the Book, and our greatest scholars have dedicated their lives to parsing our ancient texts (or, as it was called in a class I took at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “hermeneutical exegesis). This has refined the way that we Jews use words. Words in our tradition are valuable; they are to be adored, examined, deconstructed and reconstructed again. The inevitable result is the ability to spin every tale, happy, tragic, or otherwise, in multiple directions. It therefore became a Jewish tradition to use words not only for teaching and learning, but also, as a natural outgrowth, for amusement.

I would also like to point out that although our Jewish sources might seem somewhat unfunny, there is the occasionally humorous moment. For example, there is the moment in Parashat Balaq when Bil’am’s donkey opens his mouth to berate his rider (Numbers 22:28-30; it is surely not a coincidence that the 2001 movie Shrek features a talking donkey, among other Jewish hints). Or when the prophet Elisha is taunted by a pack of little boys, saying “Go away, baldy!” And so he curses them, whereupon two bears come out of the woods and mangle forty-two of them (II Kings 2:23-24).

But the Talmud is a richer source. For example:
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 23b
מתני׳. ניפול הנמצא בתוך חמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של בעל השובך, חוץ מחמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של מוצאו…
גמ'. בעי ר׳ ירמיה: רגלו אחת בתוך נ׳ אמה ורגלו אחת חוץ מחמשים אמה, מהו? ועל דא אפקוהו לרבי ירמיה מבי מדרשא.
Mishnah: If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a cage for raising pigeons), it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it...
Gemara: Rabbi Jeremiah asked: if one foot of the bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the Beit Midrash.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a
אמר ליה קיסר לרבי תנחום: תא ליהוו כולן לעמא חד. ־ אמר: לחיי, אנן דמהלינן לא מצינן מיהוי כוותייכו, אתון מהליתו, והוו כוותןִ ־ אמר ליה: מימר ־ שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי למלכא ־ לשדיוה לביבר, שדיוה לביבר ולא אכלוה. אמר ליה ההוא מינא: האי דלא אכלוה ־ משום דלא כפין הוא, שדיוה ליה לדידיה ־ ואכלוה.
Caesar said to Rabbi Tanhum, “Come, let us become one people.”
Rabbi Tanhum replied, “By my life, we who are circumcised cannot become like you. You, then, should become circumcized and be like us.”
“A very good answer, Caesar replied. “Unfortunately, anybody who defeats the emperor in an argument must be thrown to the lions.” So they threw Rabbi Tanhum to the lions. But the lions did not eat him.
An unbeliever who was standing nearby said, “The reason the lions do not eat him is that they are not hungry.”
To test this theory, they threw the unbeliever to the lions, who ate him.
Mishnah, Sukkah 4:9 (BT Sukkah 48b)
ולמנסך אומרים לו, הגבה ידך, שפעם אחת נסך אחד על גבי רגליו, ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהן:
To the priest who performed the [water] libation [on Sukkot], they used to say, “Raise your hand!” For it once happened that a Sadducee priest poured the water on his feet, and all the people pelted him with their etrogim.
Comedy: human failure.

All of this serves as a reminder of the line we read in Parashat Eqev this morning:

Deut. 8:3
כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-ה', יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם.
Ki lo al halehem levado yihyeh ha-adam, ki al kol motza fi Adonai yihreh ha-adam
For human beings do not live on bread alone, but they may live on anything that God decrees.
While the commentators understand this to mean that the mitzvot, the Torah are as important as food, we might also read this as appealing to the importance of the apparent non-essentials in our life. Yes, we need food and shelter and clothing and livelihoods and faith. But we also need to be entertained: to sing, to appreciate culture, music and art, and of course, to laugh.

And yet, even those who laugh and entertain can be suffer deeply, even in plain sight. And here is the decidedly not-funny coda.

Yalqut Shim’oni, Eqev, 850 (on Deut. 7:25):
אין אדם בעולם בלא יסורין
There is no human being in the world without afflictions.
Growing up in otherwise idyllic Williamstown, Massachusetts, I knew five people who committed suicide in the span of a decade. Three were fellow junior high and high school students; one was a physician, and the most shocking was the chairman of the chemistry department at Williams College, who had been my soccer coach and a deacon in the most prominent local church and the father of a classmate of mine, and an all-around good, reliable, and friendly guy. To this day, I do not know why he chose to end his life. Perhaps, like Robin Williams, he was suffering from severe depression.

The most tragic thing about Robin Williams’ departure from this world by his own hand is not the irony that this man, who brought such joy to billions of people around the world, chose to end his own life. The real tragedy is the stigma that our society has attached to mental illness. Although I do not know the specifics of his situation, I am aware that for those who suffer from severe depression, life can be so painful as to eclipse all the joy, and therefore all the will to live.

We all have our afflictions, as the midrash tells us, but some of course are worse than others. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 10 Americans are affected by depression, and around 3% suffer from major depression; perhaps 60% of suicides involve depressed people.

Given that people with depression and other mental illnesses harm not only themselves but occasionally others as well, and given that psychological disorders can be difficult to diagnose and expensive to treat, and given further that those with potentially dangerous mental illnesses can often be hard to find, and even when they are found, mandating treatment can be tricky, isn’t it about time that we opened up as a society about this? Could the suicide of this gem of a person, with a mind that improvised with rapid-fire accuracy and hilarity, bring us to be more open about the challenges posed by mental illness? I certainly hope so.

It is our duty as Jews to watch for the signs of depression in others, to always take threats of suicide seriously. I want to remind everybody here that Rabbi Stecker and I am always available for those who need comfort and help for any reason.

There is, as they say, one more star in the sky, but the rest of us down here are left in a slightly less-humorous world. Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. And I hope that we can keep laughing.

Shabbat shalom.

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/16/2014.)

Friday, August 8, 2014

No Time for Comfort - Shabbat Nahamu, 5774

We are now seven weeks away from Rosh Hashanah, and the theme of this period is rebuilding, of going from the sorrow of desolation and loss (Tish’ah Be’Av) to the joy of redemption and renewal.

Today is Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, a name referring to the opening word of today’s first haftarah of consolation, repeated twice (Isaiah 40:1-2):
נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי--יֹאמַר, אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.  דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ--כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד ה', כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.
Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated, for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.
It is the first of the seven haftarot of consolation. Each of these is drawn from the book of Isaiah, and each seeks to provide comfort to Israel by reassuring that restoration is on the way.

This restoration is in the context of a remarkable historical turning point. Some scholars believe that he is writing around 538 BCE, about the time that the Persian king Cyrus conquered the Babylonian Empire, and issued an edict allowing exiled peoples, like the Jews, to return to their native lands. This was roughly 50 years after the Babylonians had taken Jerusalem, destroyed the First Temple, and brought the Jews to Babylon, in what is today called Iraq.

But how did that restoration come about? How was the Second Temple built? Although Cyrus let the Jews return to Israel, not everybody was willing to pick up and move again. Fifty years is a long time - they had lives and businesses and were intermarried with the local population. Not many wanted to return; many Jews stayed in Babylon; some even moved instead to Persia, to the new imperial capital of the region. (It was in fact the events of the sixth century BCE that formed the basis of both the Iraqi and Iranian Jewish communities, both of which thrived into the 20th century.)

Rather, it was the initiative of a relatively small band (the book of Ezra says about 42,000) who returned to the Judean wasteland and braved Samaritan attacks to rebuild and rededicate the Temple, the Second Temple. It was a human endeavor.

On Thursday, I was preparing to speak about picking up the pieces of Operation Protective Edge, when I heard that Hamas had broken the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel. On Friday morning, I read that Israel had responded with airstrikes. So, sadly, this chapter continues.

However, this will not go on forever, and when the (temporary) quiet returns, we will be faced once more with the challenge of, “Well, what’s next?”

I read this week that Amos Oz, the noted Israeli author and outspoken leftist, supported Operation Protective Edge to stop the rockets coming into Israel, calling it “justified, but excessive.” This sheds some light on the depth and complexity of the problem at hand. And he is not alone: elsewhere, I saw a Gallup poll that indicated that 93% of American Jews were supportive of Israel in the last month, and the figure is about the same in Israel. You can’t get 93% Jews to agree on much of anything, really, so that is quite a sobering  figure.

Whether we are at the end of this Gaza engagement or not, we have to consider the future now.

So here is the quandary that we are in today. Continued rocket-fire and reprisals notwithstanding, Israel has mostly completed Operation Protective Edge, entering Gaza and destroying terrorist infrastructure and killing enemy combatants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They mostly restored peace to Israel, so that nobody has to head down regularly into bomb shelters. They have rooted out and destroyed the 32 carefully-designed tunnels leading into Israel, thus foiling the apparent plan to infiltrate and attack Israel on Rosh Hashanah.

But what have they not done? They have not even considered any kind of negotiated settlement that will guarantee a long-term peace. And here is the problem.

Because, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, this will all happen again. And next time, there will be more rockets with a longer range, more tunnels, and greater danger to Israel. My son, who lives at Kibbutz Ein Gev up north, was not in range of Hamas’ rockets this time. Maybe next time he will be.


Unless there is not a next time. And I am afraid that the only way that this can be is if the international powers, in cooperation with Israel, can create a successful, de-militarized Palestinian-controlled territory. And here is where Amos Oz and I agree once again.  (And some here will surely disagree with me.)

But I think that it is the lesser of two potentially bad futures.

Short of turning Gaza into a parking lot (which Israel is DEFINITELY not going to do; they are not genocidal barbarians, despite mob-driven protestations to the contrary), the only way that we have a chance for long-term peace is to create, if not a state, at least an independent, non-Hamas-ruled entity for Gaza.

Yes, I know that past events have suggested that trusting them will be fraught.

Yes, a major sticking point is that Hamas rules Gaza, and uses their own people as human shields and places rocket launchers in residential neighborhoods (BTW, did you see the video captured by the Indian television crew from NDTV of Hamas combatants building a makeshift rocket launcher next to their hotel, and then firing a rocket into Israel? Incredible!).

Yes, I know that multiple proposals for a two-state solution in the past two decades have failed for various reasons.

But remember: there is no other way out. The residents of Gaza, Hebron, Jenin, Nablus (Shekhem), and so forth are not going away. And they will not be absorbed into Egypt or Jordan.

(Aside: two years ago I was at a gas station in Ma'ale Adummim, the largest settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem. I was having trouble with the self-service pump, so an attendant came over to help me. He was a Palestinian Arab, and, noticing that the car was a rental, he asked me where I was from. I explained that I was American, and then he complimented me on my Hebrew. I asked where he was from. He said, proudly, “From here!” “You mean, Ma'ale Adummim?” I asked, jokingly. He merely smiled in response as we completed the transaction.)

No, they are not going away. And the terrorist element among them is not going away either, unless all the powers at the table find a way to neutralize them. And that would require there to be a functioning government in Gaza that serves the people of Gaza rather than the idolatrous god of terror.

Ultimately, we have to reframe this conflict not as Israel vs. Gaza, or Jew vs. Muslim, but rather as moderates vs. fundamentalists. (Remember, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states are quietly rooting for Israel here, against the Muslim Brotherhood.) This is not naïveté.  It is, rather, the only sane way out of the current bottomless pit.

The path to rebuilding will be to return to the table. Remember that table? The one that is as forlorn right now as Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile, as described in the book of Lamentations, which we read on Monday evening for Tish’ah Be’Av. We will have to negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and nobody will like it.

But let’s face it. If you compare Gaza under Hamas with the West Bank under the PA, with whom Israel has been cooperating on certain things for a long time now, the difference is stark. Why, when there are terrorists based in Gaza, has the West Bank remained largely quiet? Why did it not erupt in fury over Protective Edge? Because Israel and America have been training Palestinian police forces in the West Bank. Because trade and investment in the West Bank is quietly increasing. Unemployment in the West Bank, while not small at about 20%, is much better than the 40% in Gaza. With more people working, with priorities placed on public safety and security, with greater emphasis on cooperation, we have a chance.

Without those things, there will be more anger, more frustration, more anti-Semitic mobs, and more rockets. Guaranteed. Think about it.

You know, as a rabbi I spend a lot of time speaking about comfort, offering comfort, helping others to comfort. I must confess that the events of the last month and a half have been not just uncomfortable, but downright painful: Israelis in and out of bomb shelters, the tunnels, the body count in Gaza, the utterly cynical media manipulation of Hamas, the angry mobs chanting anti-Semitic slogans all over the world. And through all of that, I have had to offer comfort to bereaved families who have lost a loved one, comfort to my son, who was rightfully scared to fly back into a war zone, and comfort to members of this community, who are wrought over the situation in Israel and unsure how to help and support, and comfort to my wife, who has taken it upon herself to valiantly respond to her friends’ anti-Israel and vaguely anti-Semitic postings on Facebook.

Well, I am just about used up. And I am sure that all of us are as well.

But as with the brave returnees from Babylon and the building of the Second Temple, it will take a great human initiative to begin this restoration.

We are going to have to steel ourselves either for more fighting, or to return to that deserted table. That is the choice before us.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/8/14.)

Friday, August 1, 2014

War and Peace in Jewish Tradition - Shabbat Hazon, 5774

My older son flew back to Israel on Thursday evening. After I dropped him at the airport, I received news of the 72-hour cease-fire, and you can imagine how relieved I was. That is, until yesterday morning, when we heard that the cease-fire lasted all of 2 hours before being broken by mortar fire from Gaza into Israel, and then there was the news of the captured IDF soldier, Hadar Goldin.

This is also Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat right before Tish’ah Be’av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, when we commemorate all of the greatest losses that we have suffered as a people. As Israelis and Gazans mourn their dead, I think we can safely say that everybody in the world would agree that 72 hours of quiet would have been a good start, but that we need something longer, and ideally something permanent. And, of course, as we look backward over the arc of Jewish history, we may agree that there have been far more military losses and destructions and dispersions than any nation should be subjected to.

But the point on which the world disagrees is the why, the what, the when, and basically everything else. I must confess that it is very hard for me to be objective about this entire situation, with Hamas in control of Gaza and pouring all of its resources, its Israeli-made cement, its Israeli-supplied electricity and water, into building tunnels and terrorist infrastructure to destroy Israel. They could have been building greenhouses, or a nice waterfront park, or new residential buildings, or schools, or hospitals, or really anything positive. But no, they put their money on their primary objective, which is to wipe the Jewish state off the map.

So I must admit that I have a hard time seeing the other side, the side that only points to Israel’s destruction in Gaza and says, Israel is the aggressor, Israel is the sole guilty party, Israel is the murderous Zionist entity, Israel is the occupier (even though Israel has not occupied Gaza since they pulled out in 2005). And it really hurts to see that there are many people around the world who not only believe this, but chant it into microphones along with anti-Semitic epithets. That hurts. We, the Jews, deserve a land of our own, a nation that came from 2,000 years of hope and yearning, and that land deserves quiet, deserves freedom from rocket fire, freedom from enemies bent on its destruction.

While we all agree that peace should come soon, we may all not agree on Israel’s approach, even among Jews, even among Israelis. So I thought that it would be a good idea to take a look at some Jewish sources on warfare and peace, so that we can view this current conflict through the long-range scope of our ancient wisdom.

As a postulate, it must be acknowledged that Jewish tradition, as is always the case, never speaks with a single voice. So there is disagreement to be found even within these sources.

Rabbinic tradition separates wars into a couple of different kinds: mandatory and discretionary (source 2). Among the mandatory wars in the Torah are those against the seven Canaanite nations and against the Amalekites. These are called “hovah,” meaning obligatory. Maimonides tells us that these particular obligations no longer apply, because none of these people exist any more. (Even though every year Purim comes around, rabbis magically locate the spirit of Amaleq, for homiletical purposes.)

But also among the mandatory wars are those that are defensive, that is, responding to attack (source 1, below). These are in the category of milhemot mitzvah, commanded wars. The current Operation Protective Edge of course falls into this category. (There are disagreements between commentators on the Talmud about the pre-emptive strike; Rashi sides with the majority of commentators who agree that a pre-emptive strike is discretionary.)

The Sanhedrin (i.e. the representatives of the people) have the right to declare war, but they must consider the ramifications, including loss of soldiers’ lives. In the Talmud, Shemuel (source 3) condones the loss of up to one-sixth of the fighting force before charging a government with misconduct.

Philo of Alexandria (source 4), noted Jewish philosopher who lived in Egypt late into the Second Temple period, and Maimonides (source 5) as well as others were concerned for the welfare non-combatants, with the latter insisting that a siege must not prevent innocents from leaving the city.

Destruction is always a part of war, but it must be limited. See Deuteronomy 20:19-20, and Maimonides’ elaboration (sources 6 & 7). Why is this a concern? Because war has the tendency to allow for military excess (sources 8-10). See Ramban, comment to Deuteronomy 23:10 below, and also that the Torah “wants the soldier to learn to act compassionately with our enemies even during wartime.” (Ramban’s addendum to Sefer HaMitzvot).

Philo (sources 11), sees the Jewish military as being held to a higher standard, that we seek peace first, and do not slaughter indiscriminately during war.

We might conclude by noting that our inclinations to war and peace should be guided by the general principle, expressed so beautifully in Qohelet Rabbah (the standard midrash on Ecclesiastes, source 12), that this is the only world we have been given, and therefore we should do our best to minimize the damage that we cause. It is a reminder that in war, there are no winners.


And as we draw near to Tish’ah Be’av, we should remember that while the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians due to our having committed the greatest sins (idolatry, sexual impropriety, and murder), the Second Temple was lost to the Romans due to sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred.

There are many lenses here through which to view the current conflict; I leave that to you.

Shabbat shalom. Let us hope and pray that next Shabbat will truly be a Shabbat of peace.



1. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 58a
והתורה אמרה: אם בא להרגך ־ השכם להרגו, מחייה בקולפא וקטליה.
If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.

2. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 44b
א״ר יוחנן: רשות דרבנן זו היא מצוה דרבי יהודה, מצוה דרבנן זו היא חובה דרבי יהודה. אמר רבא: מלחמות יהושע לכבש ־ דברי הכל חובה, מלחמות בית דוד לרווחה ־ דברי הכל רשות, כי פליגי ־ למעוטי עובדי כוכבים דלא ליתי עלייהו
R. Johanan said: A war which is discretionary according to the Rabbis is mandatory according to R. Judah, and a war which is mandatory according to the Rabbis is obligatory according to R. Judah.
Raba said: The wars waged by Joshua to conquer Canaan were obligatory in the opinion of all; the wars waged by the House of David for territorial expansion were voluntary in the opinion of all; where they differ is with regard to wars against heathens so that these should not march against them.

3. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 35b
דאמר שמואל: מלכותא דקטלא חד משיתא בעלמא לא מיענשא, שנאמר: כרמי שלי לפני האלף לך שלמה למלכותא דרקיעא, ומאתים לנוטרים את פריו למלכותא דארעא,
Shemuel said: A government which kills only one out of six is not punished; for it is said: “I have my very own vineyard: You may have the thousand, O Solomon” - for the Kingdom of Heaven; “And the guards of the fruit two hundred”— - for the kingdom on earth. (quoted verse is Song of Songs 8:12)

4. Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE - 50 CE), The Special Laws, IV, 224-5
The Jewish nation, when it takes up arms, distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility, and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done very little or nothing amiss, shows what I should call a savage and brutal soul.

5. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim Umilhemoteihem, 6:7
כשצרין על עיר לתפשה, אין מקיפין אותה מארבע רוחותיה אלא משלש רוחותיה, ומניחין מקום לבורח ולכל מי שירצה להמלט על נפשו, שנאמר ויצבאו על מדין כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה מפי השמועה למדו שבכך צוהו.
When siege is laid to a city for the purpose of capture, it may not be surrounded on all four sides, but only on three, to give an opportunity for those who would avoid capture to escape.

6. Deuteronomy 20:19-20
יט כִּי-תָצוּר אֶל-עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ, לֹא-תַשְׁחִית אֶת-עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן--כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל, וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת:  כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה, לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר.  כ רַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר-תֵּדַע, כִּי-לֹא-עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא--אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית, וְכָרָתָּ; וּבָנִיתָ מָצוֹר...
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks...

7. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim Umilhemoteihem, 6:10
ולא האילנות בלבד, אלא כל המשבר כלים, וקורע בגדים, והורס בנין, וסותם מעין, ומאבד מאכלות דרך השחתה, עובר בלא תשחית
And not only the trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent, transgresses the commandment of bal tashhit (i.e. “Do not destroy”).

8. Deuteronomy 23:10
כִּי-תֵצֵא מַחֲנֶה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ,  וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע.
When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward.

9. Nahmanides, comment to Deut. 23:10
The most refined of people become possessed with ferocity and cruelty when advancing upon the enemy.

10. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, “War,” chapter in Frontiers of Jewish Thought, Steven Katz, ed., B’nai B’rith Books, 1992, p. 319
These concerns for the moral quotient of the soldier and the life of the enemy inform the “purity of arms” [tohorat nesheq] doctrine of the modern Israel Defense Forces. The doctrine of purity of arms, an expression apparently coined by the Labor-Zionist idealogue Berl Katznelson, limits killing to necessary and unavoidable situations.

11. Philo, The Special Laws, IV, 224
All this shows clearly that the Jewish nation is ready for agreement and friendship with all like-minded nations whose intentions are peaceful, yet is not of the contemptible kind which surrenders through cowardice to wrongful aggression.

12. Qohelet Rabbah, Parashah 7, Siman 19
בשעה שברא הקב״ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך…
At the moment that the Holy One, Blessed be God created the first human, he took him and made him pass before all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God said to him, “See how fine and praiseworthy My creations are! And everything that I have created, I have created for you. Consider this, so that you will not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do so, there will be nobody who will repair it after you.”

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally presented and discussed at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/2/2014.)