Dedicated by Davd Philipp

Essay Pirkei Avos Ch. 3
To Live in Oneness
Nature is a Manifestation of Torah

The Lord and the President

A little boy wanted $100 so badly that he prayed for two weeks, but nothing happened. He decided to write a letter to the Lord requesting the $100. When the postal authorities received the letter addressed to "Lord, USA," they decided to send it to President Biden.

The President was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed his secretary to send the little boy a $5 bill. The President thought this would appear to be a lot of money to a little boy.

The little boy was delighted with the $5 and sat down to write a thank-you note to the Lord, which read:

"Dear Lord,

"Thank you very much for sending me the money. It's just a pity you had to send it through Washington, D.C. and, as usual, those morons deducted $95."

The Traveler

It is a deeply enigmatic Mishnah:

Rabbi Jacob said: One who walks on the road and studies [Torah], and interrupts his study and remarks, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this landscape!’ the Torah considers it as if he were guilty of a mortal sin. — Mishnah, Ethics of Our Fathers, 3:7, the chapter studied this week.

This seems to be a very strange teaching. The person who interrupts his Torah study to marvel at the beauty of nature is essentially celebrating the workings of the Creator who designed a magnificent universe. Why would this be considered a grave sin?

Some have deduced from this passage that Torah rejects enjoying the beauty of nature. This is a profoundly mistaken and un-Jewish view. The same G-d who gave us the Torah, designed our brilliant universe, and wants us to appreciate it. Much of the Torah and Tanach enjoins us to contemplate the workings and miracle of creation. A major part of our daily morning prayers consists of marveling at the diversity and artistry of our universe as witnesses to the author of this magic, as a way of appreciating the spiritual oneness at the core of all reality.   

The Midrash states: “G-d led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at My works, see how beautiful they are! How exquisite! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.'"[1]

Maimonides writes in his legal code that the way to achieve love and awe of G-d is by contemplating the brilliance and dazzling beauty of His world: “What is the path to attain love and fear of G-d? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Him, yearning with tremendous desire to know the great name, as David stated[2]: ‘My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God.’"[3]

What is more, six chapters in the Code of Jewish Law[4] are devoted to the special blessing to be recited at the sight of beautiful creatures, splendid trees, and diverse natural phenomena! So when the individual who is traveling and learning encounters a particularly beautiful tree he is, perhaps, obligated to take a break from the learning and recite a blessing to G-d for this creation. If anything, this individual may be performing a mitzvah, not a sin![5]

Fragmentation

I once heard a beautiful explanation. Let us read the text again, this time more carefully:

“One who walks on the road and studies [Torah], and interrupts his study and remarks, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this landscape!’ The Torah considers it as if he were guilty of a mortal sin.” The emphasis should be put on the word “interrupts.” The problem is not the mere appreciation of our dazzlingly stunning world, but rather the fact that for this individual the esthetical exquisiteness of the tree or the landscape is an interruption of Torah study. He must interrupt his Torah learning in order to take in the beauty of the cosmos.

In the consciousness of this person, the Torah and the world are disjointed. Religion and science are at best strangers; Torah and psychology are at best foreign to each other. This person lives in a fragmented reality: The spiritual and the physical constitute two diverse realms, and never the twain shall meet. G-d runs the heavens; politics and science run the earth. The secular and the holy are divided by an absolute gulf. Torah is confined to the synagogue and the yeshiva; outside, in the real world, you surrender to the powerful embrace of the secular.

But the living presence of G-d saturates all of reality! What appears externally as secular pulsates, internally, with Divine energy. Torah is the blueprint, the Midrash says,[6] of the entire universe. Any genuine celebration of the world is a celebration of Torah. The vision and passion of Torah encompass every aspect and nuance of creation just as a blueprint includes every detail of the home designed on it.

In the weltanschauung of Judaism, the chemistry and DNA of every cell and atom is Divine energy. When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything appears for what it really is—a manifestation of infinity. Every blade of grass, grain of sand, turtle, and elephant, black holes, electrons, and bees all sings the praise of G-d and tell the story of infinite love and ecstasy.

Why would I think that stopping to breathe in the glory of G-d’s universe is an interruption of Torah unless I am cut off from the source of life which saturates every leaf, droplet of water, and heartbeat?

____________________

[1] Midrash Rabah Koheles 7:28

[2]  Psalms 42:3.

[3] Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah, 2:1

[4] Orach Chaim 225-229

[5] Some argue that the Mishnah was not attempting to ridicule an appreciation of nature’s majesty, but rather to make it clear that one ought not to equate its significance with the study of Torah. Notwithstanding the importance of developing an appreciation for G-d’s awesome world, it pales in comparison with the study of Torah which captures G-d’s most essential and intimate wisdom and will, transcending even G-d as a brilliant Creator.

Other commentators suggested a more pragmatic approach. During Rabbi Jacob’s days, most of the oral tradition of Judaism was not transcribed yet. The students needed to memorize lots of material, and they typically enjoyed memorizing their lessons while strolling outdoors. (Such peripatetic memorization is still practiced today in some parts of the Middle East). Since they were, naturally, tempted to shift their attention from studying to the surrounding scenic views, the Mishnah specifically warned against this.

The Maggid of Mezrich presents an incredibly powerful interpretation. A person is on the path of study but interrupts his study to congratulate himself, saying, "How beautiful is this 'tree' and 'plowed field'!"—referring to himself and his academic achievements. This is a person who allows his learning to become a source of arrogance and haughtiness. Such a person endangers his own soul because his arrogance cuts him off from the oneness of reality, the source of life. The ego cannot co-exist with infinity. The phrase hamafsik m'mishnato can be translated: "He who interrupts—his connection with G-d—because of his study (m'mishnato, from his very study)." It is the learning itself that disconnects him from G-d since his learning is filled with narcissism (Rimzei Torah 442).

[6] Midrash Rabah Bereishis 1:1

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