Battling the Siege-Sefat Emet Barzhon
“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).”
“When you lay siege to a city for a long time,” can be understood based on our Sages, who explained: Rabbi Ammi bar Abba also said: What is the meaning of, “There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good (Ecclesiates 9:14-18).”
‘A little city’ refers to the body; and ‘a few men within’ to the limbs; ‘and there came a great king against it and besieged [it]’ to the Evil Urge; ‘and built great bulwarks against it’, to sin; ‘Now there was found in it a poor wise man,’ to the Good Urge; ‘and he by his wisdom delivered the city,’ to repentance and good deeds; ‘yet no man remembered that same poor man,’ for when the Evil Urge gains dominion, none remember the Good Urge (Nedarim 32b).
The Talmud here refers to a person as the ‘city’ in the verse. When a person is prepared to wage war against his Evil Inclination and subdue him so that he will assist you in your service of the Creator, as in, “You shall love God, your Lord, with all your hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5),” meaning, with both the Good and Evil Inclinations (Berachot 54a).
This is why our text says, “fighting against it to capture it,” not to destroy it, for, as I explained the Mishnah, “Who is the mighty man? The one who subdues his Evil Inclination (Avot 4:1),” subdue, not to break or destroy.
There are two types of war: In one the attacker intends to permanently destroy a city, burn it to the ground, and turn it into a permanent ruin. There is another war in which the attacker wants to subdue the city for tribute and ransom, and perhaps use its soldiers in other wars.
The attacker in the first type of war is weak for he hears whether he will be able to control the city even after victory. The attacker in the other war trusts his strength and is confident. So too, in our battle with the Evil Inclination our objective is to transform him into an ally in out battle to serve God (Sefat Emet Barzhon: Shofetim).
One of the ways to prepare for the Tenth of Tevet, the beginning of the Babylonian siege of the First Temple is to prepare for a siege for good; to strategize ways to use our negative traits and drives in our service of God.