Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Guest Posting From "Space Cadet" - Learning Torah Beside Walden Pond

(Picture by M. Rowinski)

Ever since I escaped the hometown 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, or at least is easier to reach, in the untrammeled, or at least not so badly trammeled countryside. Not for nothing did the holy 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. One writer from the 1950s described New York City as “six million people hustling for a buck” (fifty years later, make that nine million). 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 buzzing conscious mind, conditioned by all the fly-by-day-or-night comings and goings of the forever vanishing world.

As I sat on the porch learning Torah in the summertime, in the shade of a leafy maple tree, I would sometimes pause to gaze upon the nifla’os haBorei surrounding me – and immediately I felt guilty. What does the Mishnah say? Hamehalekh baderekh v’shoneh u’mafsik mimishnaso 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.”]

I often wondered: 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 in a heartfelt way to the esthetic qualities of the world around us, which is animated by the Creator, as it is written “Kulam b’chokhmah ‘asisah” (Tehillim 104:24) [“You have made them all with wisdom”]?

One recent Shabbos afternoon I came across an answer to this troubling question.

The late Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, zal, 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 simply strolling through the woods or orchards, etc. The main thing Chazal zero in on is the act of distracting oneself in the midst of Torah study. However, there is a deeper meaning here, as well.

The text states that this person interrupts his Torah study to extol the beauty of nature. That is to say, he creates a false division between creation and G-d’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, as the Rambam states. However, the problem is that this person praises the beauty of nature in context of a hefsek, a “split” or break from the Torah, and not in a state 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 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, ad loc.). The younger Rav Kook prefers 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 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 in keeping with its underlying purpose: as a means of coming to know Hashem.

Based on Sichas Avos ‘al Masechtas Avos (Jerusalem)


At December 13, 2006 at 11:07:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, this post couldn't have come at a better time.

At December 13, 2006 at 11:09:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Why do you say that?

At December 13, 2006 at 2:02:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Baal Shem Tov gives a very good and deep explanation of this Mishna which answers your worries. I'll post it a bit later.

At December 13, 2006 at 2:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A story is told about about (a young) Rav Soloveichik – he was standing outside the Beis Hamedrash looking at the sky in awe of its beauty.

His father came out, and seeing his son standing there looking at the sky, he asked: "What are you looking at?"

The young R' Soloveitchik replied, "How beautiful it all is.”

His father grew angry, quoting this Mishna, and sent him back in to learn… (It ain't easy being a Brisker)

At December 13, 2006 at 2:11:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

A Yid: I look forward to it!

Chabakuk Elisha: My ancestors come from Ukraine, you can guess my comment.

At December 13, 2006 at 3:02:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CE: Obviously he didn't know the Baal Shem Tov's explanation :)))

At December 13, 2006 at 6:02:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is the pirush:
You can find it here
The source is actually Mezheritcher Maggid zy”o (but it is brought in Keser Shem Tov). Mekoyr is in Likutim Yekorim (I can lookup later more exactly where it is).

רבי יעקב אומר : המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק משנתו, ואומר : מה נאה אילן זה! או, מה נאה ניר זה ! - מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו מתחיב בנפשו.

המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו. תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיד, פירוש, אפילו כשתעסוק בתורה שנאמר בה (תהלים י"ט) תורת ה' תמימה, וזהו שכתוב תמים תהיה אפילו בעסק התורה, תהיה עם ה' אלהיך, ולא תאמר שהתורה נקראת ממילא תורת ה', רק תשגיח על זה היסב, וזהו ענין שאמרו חכמינו ז"ל במשנה כאן המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק מכהבנתו, וכו', דהוי לו לומר ומפסיק ממשנתו, והוה ידעינן דהיה שונה, עוד קשה דאמר מעלה עליו הכתוב ולא מפרש איזה כתוב, ויש לומר דהפירוש הוא שהולך בדרך הישר אפילו הכי הוא יחידי, שאינו דבוק בהשם יתברך (ממילא אינו מקיים הכתוב תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיד), ושונה ומפסיק מסהבנתו, ר"ל מפסיק עצמו מהשם יתברך מחמת משנתו, דהיינו שבא לו גדלות והתפארות מחמת, משנתו, שסובר שהוא משנתו שלו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה, ועל עצמו אומר כן בלבו כמו שכתוב כי האדם עץ השדה, ואומר על עצמו דהוא אילנא די רבא ותקיף, ומה נאה ניר זה כמו שכתוב (בירמיה ד'( נירו לכם ניר, פירוש, שאומר שמכין לעצמו חלק לעולם הבא על ידי משנתו, ולכן מעלה עליו הכתוב, פי' כתוב הנ"ל זה שהוא עובר עליו) שנאמר בו תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך, וזהו שאמרו מעלה עליו הכתוב הזה שכולל כל התורה כאילו מתחייב בנפשו.

At December 13, 2006 at 6:10:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for typos. It copied the text from the VCR of the pdf file. But I hope you can figure it out.
For example it should be היסב instead of היטב etc.

This is the most beautiful pirush I ever saw on this Mishna. Obviously when the person sees the beauty of the Briya and understands that Hashem is behind it all - it will only arouse his ahavas Hashem. (See Rambam for example about such hisboynenus).

At December 13, 2006 at 6:11:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meant: it should be היטב instead of היסב etc.

At December 13, 2006 at 6:20:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where would Avraham Avinu be if he didn't learn about the majesty of Hashem from the world He created?

One can come to love and feel awe toward the Mighty One that created the complex, the finite and intricate complexities of our entire world. This is one of the many paths. Many people have difficulty in reaching the love and awe for Hashem; this is one way to get there.

Of course, interrupting = creating a dichotomy - is not what we are meant to do with our Torah wisdom; on the contrary,as I understand things, it is toward the unification of all goodness, creating achdus, and having our learning imbue all our thoughts and actions for the good.

To my understanding, this can only be accomplished via the interaction with all of Hashem's creatures, and seeing the goodness in them, and helping them to see it in themselves.

(P.S. I am still working on this, as it is no mere feat)

At December 14, 2006 at 1:39:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Yid:

The Maggid's drush is very beautiful -- but with all due respect, it is a drush. Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook's words are a "tighter" pshat, albeit with a good deal of overlap with the words of the heiliger Maggid.

At December 14, 2006 at 9:42:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Space Cadet

1. why not retire to Israel? or at the very least come visit a lot..

2. back to the point at hand: The Maggid's drash is actually 'tighter' pshat in that it explains all the anomalies of the text and doesn't gloss over them. Whereas Rav Kook explained only one aspect of the deeper idea without deriving it from the text. When you are done with the Maggid's drash, there's much less left to ask--the mishna is more thoroughly explained.

examples of questions that are still open: 1. Why was it Rabbi Yaakov that brought this teaching? (perhaps the mishna is taught in the name of Rabi Yaakov because if you look in this week's parashah, Yaakov Avinu (l'havdil) is punished for wanting lashevet b'shalvah -- another kind of 'hefsek.' -- another peculiar wording is mishnato is also m'shnato (ie. when he woke up from his slumber)) 2. Why Ki'ilu? 3. what about Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's spin on "mitchayev b'nafsho" that I brought up in my own blog?

disclaimer: i've never seen a difference between pshat, remez, drash, and sod. for me, until all the questions are thoroughly answered it's all part of the pshat. Imho pshat may actually be an entirely halachic idea which plays no part in understanding anything other than halachah--but that's a very extreme opinion, most likely just to lead myself and others astray.

At December 14, 2006 at 10:59:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Rav Avraham Greenbaum:

At December 14, 2006 at 12:44:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Space Cadet: Maggid's explanation can't be called a pure drush. He askes a kashye in solid pshat, and answers it (even though he uses drush as well). And I agree with Yitz - The Maggid's drash is actually 'tighter' pshat because he works closely with the body of the text.

At August 26, 2007 at 3:03:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry fellas...with all due respect to your learning; it seems like all that energy could've gone into enjoying the beauties of nature and letting it calm and inspire your neshama. some of you are spending waaaay too much time in the sforim and need to take a walk in the woods.

At May 13, 2008 at 9:08:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post, and yes I do wonder why so many people make NYC metro as their home- when they could be living 100 miles north for a quarter of the price with the same amenities besides kosher pizza.

It seems that all people from NY do is complain about how the tuition is high, the secular influence is killing them and their commutes to work are forcing them to cheat on their wives.

Tree Huggers unite!!!


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