Towards the end of Parshat Shoftim (20:19), the Torah instructs Bnei Yisrael, “Ki Tatzur El Ir Yamim Rabim LeHilachem Aleha Letofsah, Et Eitzah Lindo’ach Aleha Garzen, Ki Mimenu Tocheil,” “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe, because from it you will eat.” The Seforno explains that normally, if a soldier finds that he has absolutely no chance of overcoming an enemy, he will try to be as destructive as possible – to deal as much damage as he can before he is killed or forced to retreat. When he expects to be victorious, however, he would never cause damage to future spoils. This is the message that the Pasuk is conveying to future combatants in Bnei Yisrael: when they fight, they must trust in Hashem, confident that He will guide them to capturing the land for which they are fighting. They may not try to injure enemies’ trees or reduce other types of their rivals’ booty, “because from it [they] will eat” – doing so would be destroying wealth that will end up under their control.
This concept seems to contradict a Pasuk elsewhere in Tanach in which Elisha HaNavi instructs Bnei Yisrael about an upcoming war against Moav. Elisha commands (Melachim II 3:19), “VeHikitem Kol Ir Mivtzar VeChol Ir Mivchor, VeChol Eitz Tov Tapilu, VeChol Maaynei Mayim Tistomu, VeChol HaChelkah HaTovah Tach’ivu BaAvanim,” “You shall strike every fortified city and every important city, you shall chop down every good tree, you shall plug every spring of water, and you shall clutter every piece of good land with stones.” Contrary to Sefer Devarim, this seems to say that when the Bnei Yisrael go to war, they should indeed ruin various parts of enemies’ property! In fact, it teaches the exact opposite of the Mitzvah in Devarim – whereas the latter forbids toppling trees, this Pasuk in Melachim mandates it! How can these seemingly contradictory Pesukim be resolved?
The Avnei Azel answers that Parshat Shoftim discusses a battle in Eretz Yisrael, in which spoils must not be harmed, whereas the battle in Melachim II takes place in Moav, where the prohibition of reducing enemy wealth and riches does not apply. He proves this from the aforementioned explanation of the Seforno, who clearly assumes that Bnei Yisrael are destined to conquer the land referred to in Shoftim. It is only because of this destiny that the Jews may not diminish any of their foes’ wealth – there is no doubt that they will end up receiving it. However, the Pesukim in Melachim II specifically indicate that Elisha’s words concern Moav, which is not part of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, Hashem’s promise to give the land to Bnei Yisrael does not apply, and although it is always good to have faith in Hashem, a soldier who cuts up trees or other enemy assets during such a war does not show the same lack of faith.
The Avnei Azel’s answer shows how powerful Hashem’s promise to give the Jews the Land of Israel is. Even though we must always trust that Hashem will guarantee our success, the Mitzvah to leave enemy booty unharmed as a demonstration of complete faith in Hashem applies only where there is also that definite promise of Eretz Yisrael. May we see that promise fulfilled again BiMheirah VeYameinu.
--Adapted from a Dvar Torah in Maayanah Shel Torah