Shiur #15: Torah Study and Nature Appreciation

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


Shiur #15: Torah Study and Nature Appreciation

By Rav Moshe Taragin

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.

The seventh mishna of the third perek cites an astonishing position in the name of Rebbi Shimon. He claimed that a person who interrupts his Torah study to appreciate nature is 'considered' someone who is chayav mita (punishable by death). Judaism recognizes Torah study as the most direct manner of uncovering God and thereby knowing and loving Him. Yet it also recognizes additional routes which, though subsidiary, nonetheless deepen our appreciation of Him. A well-known ruling of the Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-torah (2:2) describes the manner of achieving ahavat Hashem (love of God). The Rambam's premise is that love must be founded upon knowledge. Effectively then, the Rambam presents his recipe toward attaining knowledge of Hashem: “When a person studies His wondrous 'acts and creations' acknowledging their inner and unlimited wisdom, he immediately loves and desires praise …” Whether or not this Rambam is the MOST effective manner of achieving love and knowledge of God, undoubtedly, studying God's world forms an invaluable instrument toward greater love and knowledge. Had the mishna in Avot COMPARED Torah study and appreciation of nature and merely PRIORITIZED the former, it would not be so astonishing. What astounds is the severity of judgment regarding the person who confuses their relative worth. Describing a person who confuses the two as someone deserving death seems very harsh.

Several early commentaries attempted to moderate this message, seeing in the mishna's harsh judgment, a slightly different message and a condemnation of a different crime- far more severe than merely appreciating nature at the cost of torah study. Foremost is Rashi's approach which reads the mishna as practical advice but not as an example of religious malfunction. The literal reading of the mishna refers to one who TRAVELS while learning and interrupts his learning to study nature. Even though each religious experience is valid in its own right, Torah study provides additional unique 'coverage' against accidents – which commonly occurred during TRAVEL. By supplanting Torah study with nature appreciation, a person exposes himself to natural 'accidents' which may have been prevented through the merit of Torah study.

After all, the fourth mishna of this perek records Rebbi Chanina's practical warning against – among other things - walking alone at night. Whether he was concerned with physical vulnerability or unnecessary exposure to harmful spirits, Rebbi Chanina registers concern at a practical and not a moral level. Yet he employs the term 'he deserves to be killed' to capture the practical danger of unaccompanied night travel in ancient periods. Rashi believes that Rebbi Shimon addressed similar practical concerns when he cautioned against interrupting torah study for nature appreciation when TRAVELING!!

To be sure, even according to Rashi's interpretation, Torah study remains superior to nature appreciation. However, this superiority does not warrant a death sentence for a person who ignores Torah's supremacy. The harsh outcome is merely a product of surrendering the unique protective capacity of Torah study. That unique protection, in and of itself, also speaks to Torah's moral and religious superiority, though not to its being a clearer instrument toward knowledge of the Divine.

Rashi's reading would demand a slight emendation to the actual text of the mishna as recorded in our editions. The current edition reads that the person is considered guilty by death by the Torah. Though the mishna itself does not cite a pasuk, several SCRIPTURAL sources speaking to the severity of Torah neglect with grave consequences 'as if it were punishable by death,' readily present themselves. Rashi, however, claims that the potential death is not a sentence but rather a natural outcome. Rashi, indeed, expunges this phrase "the Torah sentences him to death,” thereby allowing his novel reading.

Yet a different reading is supplied by Rabbenu Yonah. The mishna does not necessarily devalue nature appreciation or even forbid it when it conflicts with Torah study. Rather it portrays a situation of lethargic involvement in Torah study as EVIDENCED by the easy loss of attention and diversion to nature appreciation. Perhaps nature study is sanctioned, but when a person is immersed in Torah study he should achieve an intellectual focus and an emotional intensity which is not easily interrupted by passing amusements.

Perhaps (though the Rabbenu Yonah does not specifically mention this) the scenario of nature's interruption of Torah study specifically while a person is TRAVELING, connotes this impression as well. Nature can be studied and 'mined' for religious inspiration and it can also form a manner of passing time. The image of a person studying nature while traveling may suggest the latter rather than the former. The religious 'lover of nature' seeks out his landscape, while the easily diverted mind merely attaches itself to whichever scene appears before his lens.

Travel in particular, challenges us to employ time constructively, rather than idle it away with distraction. Perhaps, in some manner, the Torah itself addresses this challenge when it summons us to Torah study 'while we reside in our homes and while we travel along the road’ (be-shivtekha be-veitekha u've-lekhtekha va-derekh (Devarim 6:7)!! As human beings spend a not insignificant portion of their lives on the road, this challenge becomes crucial.

Yet a third 'reading' of this mishna may imply that the crime relates, not to the choice, but to the absence of any religious outcome of the nature experience. The mishna describes someone who interrupts his learning to appreciate nature – and does not record any religious response to the encounter with nature. It merely portrays someone who beholds a tree or a meadow and extols its beauty without tracing this aesthetic experience toward the Divine master. Not only has he squandered a religious moment but he has also derailed a prior religious experience of Torah study. This missed opportunity, coupled with the departure from Torah study, may warrant severe consequences. The same may not necessarily apply to someone who genuinely probes nature for the religious meaning that it contains even theoretically if it comes at the cost of potential torah study.

Assuredly though, despite the various 'readings' and interpretations - each of them conveying important religious morals in their own right - the mishna does provide a stark hierarchy - even if it employs the tool of hyperbole to convey its message. Even in our attempts to broaden our religious horizons and encounter Hashem through various different interfaces and multi-layered experiences, we cannot blur the primacy of Torah study - both intellectually and spiritually. Intellectually, in that God's will reveals Him more directly than His creation, and religiously, because we are commanded to study Torah and merely ‘invited’ to encounter nature. Though misunderstanding this hierarchy may not warrant an actual death sentence, Chazal, left no doubt as to the true 'field' of our primary religious efforts.