How beautiful is this tree!

20 Jun

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org

אבות ג,ט  רבי יעקוב אומר, המהלך בדרך ושונה, ומפסיק משנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה, מה נאה ניר זה – מעלין עליו כאילו הוא מתחייב בנפשו.

“Rabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, “How beautiful is this tree!” … the Torah considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.” (Ethics of Our Fathers 3:9)

This seems to be a strange religious saying, as if it pits Judaism against nature. Let us examine a few modern פירושים on this verse.

* Micah Joseph Berdichevsky reinterprets the verse, essentially teaching that one who ignores the natural world, and refuses to interrupt his Torah study to marvel at its beauty, “bears the guilt for his own soul.” Can we allow ourselves to read religious texts in completely the opposite way of how they were originally intended by their authors? Why/why not?

* Rabbi Kook reinterprets the verse, saying that one who does not understand that both the natural world and Torah study are two sides of the same coin, and that it is not an interruption, but rather a continuation, of Torah study, to comment on the beauty of a tree, “bears the guilt for his own soul.” Are the natural world and the Torah world really part of the same equation? Why/why not? Are they linked more/less in Israel/the Diaspora? Why?

* Haim Nahman Bialik reinterprets the verse, concentrating on the words “walking along the road,” understanding this in the context of the rootlessness of Exile. He says one who can perceive beauty in Exile “bears the guilt for his own soul.” Is the nature of Israel more “ours” than the nature of the Diaspora? Why/why not? When we sayמוריד הטל/משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם do you think we should say this according to the seasons of where we live (in the Diaspora) or according to the Israeli seasons? Why?

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

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