Sunday, May 6, 2012

“How beautiful is this tree!”—Uh-oh…

Based on Sichas Avos al Masechtas Avos
Received by email from Space Cadet

This Dvar Torah appeared previously (in slightly different form) on the Breslov-oriented blog, A Simple Jew. We are posting it here in connection with Chapter 3 of Pirkey Avos, which we studied last Shabbos. 

Ever since I escaped the habitat of my youth—overcrowded cockroach-infested cement and steel garbage-strewn car honking sock-in-the-nose New York City—and retired to the majestic beauty of the Catskills, I have felt that HaShem is somehow nearer to us in the untrammeled, or at least not so badly trammeled, countryside. (Why don’t they ban billboards?) Not for nothing did the heiligeh Baal Shem Tov spend his days as a young nistar wandering in the Carpathian mountains in hisbodedus; not for nothing was the Chassidic movement he founded basically a rural phenomenon. Jack Kerouac described New York City as “millions and millions of people hustling for a buck.” Away from the frenzy and artifice of city life, one can get in touch with deeper parts of the soul that lie closer to the core of being than the constantly agitated surface of the mind, wind-swept by all the fly-by-day-or-night comings and goings of the forever vanishing world.   

As I sat on the porch learning “Chelek” Sanhedrin, in the shade of an elderly apple tree, I would sometimes pause to gaze upon the nifla’os haBorei surrounding me—and immediately feel guilty. What does the Mishnah say? Hamehalekh baderekh v’shoneh u’mafsik mi’mishnaso v’omer: mah na’eh ilan zeh, u’mah na’eh nir zeh, ma’aleh alav hakasuv k’ilu mischayev b’nafsho (Avos 3:7). “One who walks along the way, and interrupts his review of his Torah studies and exclaims, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this freshly plowed field!’ Scripture accounts it to him as if he had forfeited his life.”    

Is it sinful to contemplate the beauty of nature, which is HaShem’s handiwork? Is reviewing by rote the Torah one has memorized inherently superior to relating to the aesthetic qualities of the world around us, which is animated by the Creator? As it is written “Kulam b’chokhmah asisah, You have created them all with wisdom…” 

Then one Shabbos afternoon I came across an answer to this troubling question. The late Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook seems to have been bothered by this Mishnah, too. He shows the error of the commonsense reading of the Mishnah by taking a careful look at the phraseology of the text: First of all, the Mishnah is discussing a person who is walking and reviewing his Torah studies, and who then interrupts his learning—not one who is strolling through the woods or orchards, etc. The main thing Chazal zero in on is the act of neglect. However, there is a deeper meaning here, as well. 

The text states that this person interrupts (“mafsik”) his Torah study to extol the beauty of nature. That is to say, he creates a false division between creation and HaShem’s Torah. It is for this reason that he “forfeits his life.” The beauty of trees, for which we recite a brokhah every spring, is a Divine gift to humankind. Through contemplating this beauty one comes to love Hashem, which the Rambam would consider a fulfillment of the mitzvah of ahavas HaShem. The problem is that this person praises the beauty of nature in the context of a hefsek, a “split” or break from the Torah, and not as a means of spiritual connection to the Torah. The intent of Chazal is not to reject this world; rather their intent is to reveal the eternity of Olam Habah, the World to Come, right here, in the colorful tapestry of the temporal world that we experience.   

Rav Zvi Yehudah also proposes a correction of the more common text of the Mishnah, which attributes this saying to Rabbi Shimon. Another girsa attributes it to Rabbi Yaakov (see, for example, the Kehati edition). The younger Rav Kook preferred this version because it is the same Rabbi Yaakov who taught in Avos 4:16: “This world is like a vestibule before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the vestibule so that you may enter the banquet hall!” And in the following Mishnah (4:17), Rabbi Yaakov taught: “One hour of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the World to Come; and one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come is better than the entire life of this world!” In all three teachings (including the Mishnah we began with, about one who interrupts his studies to praise the beauty of the tree, etc.), Rabbi Yaakov is consistent with his viewpoint: one must be careful not to lose sight of the goal and essence of things, which is called chayeh Olam HaBah, the “life of the World to Come,” and resist being distracted by the appearance of nature as an end in itself. Then one can successfully relate to this world as a means of coming closer to HaShem.

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