Dangerous Division – Torah and Nature in Pirqei Avot

There’s a famous mishna in the ethical tractate called Pirqei Avot (Chapters on Fundamentals), which says the following:

Rabbi Ya’aqov said: One who is reviewing their Torah study while walking on the way, and interrupts their study to say, “What a beautiful tree,” or “What a beautiful field,” is regarded by Scripture as if they had endangered their soul.

This is a curious and potentially troubling statement! Is the mishna really saying that acknowledging the beauty of the world, of God’s world, is spiritually dangerous? One of the most notable commentators on Pirqei Avot, Rabbi Ovadya Bartentura writes the following about this mishna:

“What a beautiful tree,” or “What a beautiful field,” – this same rule [that you endanger your soul] applies to any unnecessary conversation. But it’s common that if something is happening on the road on which you walk, you will comment about what you see! And there are those who say [that this is only in the case] if it is majority of what you say [that is, unnecessary conversation] – for even though through commenting on nature one can come to bless the One who formed the world – we nonetheless consider this person as if they have endangered their soul – for they interrupted their study.

Bartenura at least acknowledges the apparent severity of the mishna‘s statement – yet even while doing so he upholds the idea that interrupting one’s study is punishable by death (another understanding of the phrase ‘endangers their life’).

This mishna was on my mind quite a bit last weekend, as I spent it hiking with my teachers and classmates from the Jewish Theological Seminary in the Adirondack Mountains. R’ Daniel Nevins, our fantastic dean and rosh yeshiva, leads a several day trip up there for rabbinical students each year. To say that this immersion in nature is connected to Torah simply seems obvious! How can we reconcile the obvious experience of so many who find God in nature – who find meaning precisely in stopping to say, ‘What a beautiful tree’ or ‘what a beautiful field!’ with the tradition recorded in our mishna?

One answer which I find extremely compelling comes from R’ Marc Angel, a pioneering Modern Orthodox rabbi whose focus on Jewish ideals and incorporation of traditional sefardi spirituality has inspired me time and time again. He recently published a wonderful commentary on Pirqei Avot, in which he writes the following about our mishna:

R’ Ya’aqov’s statement has often been understood to reflect a Torah-centered religious vision that denigrates the natural world. Presumably, one should be so engrossed in Torah so as not to be distracted by beautiful trees or fields! However, his statement might actually have something else in mind…There are two basic paths to the Almighty: Torah and nature. These are not mutually exclusive paths but are complementary. When one studies Torah, one is studying the word of God. When one experiences the wonders of nature, one confronts the awesome creations of God. A proper religious worldview entails proper appreciation of both Torah and nature, and sees the ultimate harmony and unity of both….So this may be the real message of R’ Ya’aqov: one should study Torah as a manifestation of God’s will; one should admire nature as a reflection of God’s wisdom and creative powers. Torah and nature are complementary paths to God. One must not ‘interrupt’ between them by seeing them as distinct and separate domains. 

This beautiful reinterpretation of the mishna is one that speaks to my soul – a soul that was moved by the sight of the High Peaks, of the awesome wonder of standing atop a mountain, within the mist and the cloud. Rabbi Angel understands the real danger, the real interruption not to be interrupting one’s study so so that they can comment on the trees – but to act as though it is an interruption to do so. The real danger is when we make a distinction between nature and Torah – when we interrupt our thinking, believing them to be in separate and irreconcilable realms.

Had we gone to the mountains and forgotten the Torah of those beautiful peaks – or had we only learned Torah in a dark cloistered room, ignoring the beauty outside the windows – then we would be endangering our soul. As long as we continue to find God both in text and in the natural world – we shall be protected from all the dangers that believing there to be an ‘interruption’ between them entails.

Images courtesy of the author.

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