By Rabbi Barry Kornblau
Barry Kornblau is Director of Member Services at the Rabbinical Council of America and serves as rabbi at Young Israel of Hollis Hills – Windsor Park in Queens, NY.
On Shabbat afternoons during the summer, many have the custom to study the section of the Mishna known as Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). At this time of year, when many parts of the Northern Hemisphere presents us with lush natural beauty, it is particularly startling to come across a mishna (Avot 3:7) which seems to denigrate the appreciation of natural beauty:
רבי שמעון אומר: המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו ואומר, “מה נאה אילן זה! ומה נאה ניר זה!” – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו מתחייב בנפשו.
Rabbi Shimon says: A person walking on the road while reviewing his Torah knowledge who interrupts his review to declare, “How lovely is this tree!”, or “How lovely is this plowed field!” – Scripture considers it as if he deserves capital punishment.
And indeed, a number of traditional commentaries on this complex mishna posit that stopping to look at nature (a tree) or at nature modified by man (the plowed field) and to remark upon its beauty is a neutral activity at best; a idle or negative one, at worst.
Other commentaries, however, consider beholding and praising wild or cultivated natural beauty to be a positive activity, for its gives one an opportunity to praise God. Indeed, they note that our Sages even mandated the recitation of a blessing upon encountering trees and other beautiful items: “Blessed Are You, Hashem, our God who is Ruler of the world, who has such [remarkable things] in His world.” These commentaries assert that R. Shimon is teaching that, nevertheless, Torah study is more important than reciting this blessing and that, therefore, one must not interrupt one’s study to do so.
A third, entirely different approach to interpreting this mishna comes from R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook, son of the first chief rabbi of Palestine R. Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook. R. Tzvi Yehuda was principal editor of his father’s published works and an influential Jewish thinker in his own right.
In R. T. Y. Kook’s view, the walker’s being worthy of capital punishment is neither because of his noticing beautiful trees and fields nor because of his choice to prioritize stating that observation at the expense of continuing his Torah study. Rather, the walker’s negative activity is his belief that appreciating the tree’s and field’s beauty constitutes an interruption in his Torah study. Instead, the walker ought to unify his appreciation of the Divine source of the beauty of Creation with his understanding of God and His Torah.
To illustrate his point, R. T. Y. Kook quotes a mystical poem, “The Whispers of Existence”, composed by his father, R. A. Y. Kook, which reflects this outlook:
All existence whispers to me a secret:
“I have life to offer, take it, please take”
If you have a heart and in the heart red blood courses,
Which the poison of despair has not soiled.
“But if your heart is dulled”, existence whispers to me,
“And beauty does not charm you –
Leave me, leave,
Behold, I am forbidden to you.
If every gentle sound,
Every living beauty,
Arouse in you not the glory of a holy song,
But the flow of some some foreign fire,
Then leave me, leave, I am forbidden to you.”
And a generation will yet arise full of life
And sing to beauty and life
And draw delight unending
From the dew of heaven.
And this people returned to life will hear
The wealth of life’s secrets
From the vistas of the Carmel and the Sharon,
And from the delight of song and life’s beauty
Will be filled with a sacred light
When all of existence will whisper to it:
“My beloved, I am permitted to you.”
The second paragraph corresponds to the guilty walker in our mishna, one who is deadened to appreciating the beauty of Hashem’s Creation; who severs it from his Torah study, considering it to be an “interruption”; and who therefore is “as if he deserves capital punishment” since his life and perspective are so lacking.
By contrast, the final paragraph corresponds to a righteous walker. He perceives the natural world (particularly the Land of Israel) and man’s ability to transform that world as Divine gifts, reflecting the philosophy of the blessing recited over blossoming trees in the spring month of Nisan: “Blessed Are You, Hashem, our God who is Ruler of the world, who omitted nothing in His world and who created goodly creatures and goodly trees to bring benefit to people.”
This all-encompassing spiritual, physical, and experiential reality means that such a walker and his Torah are truly integrated with the world and therefore fully alive, since the Torah is “a tree of life to those who grasp onto it.” The intellect and inner spirit of such an individual resonates with the reality that just as his ability to walk, advance, and flourish on the path of his life stems from his study of Hashem and His Torah, so too his perception of, and pleasure in, natural beauty stem from his study of Torah, which sustains him and the entire world. Hence, there is no interruption; all is one.
This is a tall order, indeed.
As we stroll this summer, discussing Pirkei Avot and the rest of the Torah as we go, let us aspire to be righteous walkers, fully and uninterruptedly rooted in the beauty and bounty of Hashem’s creation which is part of us and of His holy Torah which sustains all.