Loveliest of Trees

As Tu Bishvat approaches, I find myself thinking about the section of Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) that deals with appreciating the beauty of trees. It is a text that has long troubled me, as it seems to contradict everything I most love about Judaism.

Rabbi Yaakov says:
One who is walking along a path while learning
And interrupts his learning to say:
How lovely [naeh] is this tree!
How lovely [naeh] is this field!
The tradition considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul. (3:9)

In this text, Rabbi Yaakov casts aspersion on the student of Torah who breaks from her studies for even a moment to admire the beauty of the world around her. Yet how can this be? Is this student’s behavior really so egregious? After all, aren’t we commanded to appreciate the beauty of the world that God has created for us? There is even a blessing that we are supposed to recite upon seeing a beautiful tree:

Rav Yehudah says: One who goes out during the Spring months
and sees trees that are blooming should say,
“Blessed is He Who does not leave out anything from His world
And Who created in it good creations and good trees
For the pleasure of human beings.” (B. Brachot 43b)

Rav Yehudah commands us to take note of the world around us and to thank its Creator. The very same action that Rabbi Yaakov condemns in the first source, the appreciation of natural beauty, is mandated by Rav Yehudah in this second source.

But is it the very same action? There are several differences between the two texts. Most notably, the first source is about a person who interrupts his learning, while the second source is about an individual who does not seem to be otherwise occupied. Perhaps the sin is the interruption of learning, and not the admiration of nature per se?

I find this interpretation troubling. After all, are we not always supposed to be learning Torah? Shouldn’t the words and the melody of Torah be on our lips at all times? If so, then there should really be no distinction between the person who is walking while studying, and the person who is just walking along during the Spring months.

The key difference between the two sources is not whether the individual in question is in the middle of studying, since we should always be immersed in Torah. Rather, the distinction is that only in the first source are we told that the individual interrupts his studies. In the first source, Torah is interrupted; in the second source, there seems to be no interruption involved. Why?

The answer, I think, lies in the nature of the statements uttered. Saying “How lovely is this tree!” is very different from saying “Blessed is He Who does not leave out anything from His world….” The first statement does not invoke God at all. It is almost pagan in its utter and complete lack of attribution. “How lovely is this tree” – as if the tree had always been there, or had dropped by sheer force of gravity from the sky. The second statement, though, reflects a religious sensitivity. Unlike Rabbi Yaakov’s speaker, Rav’s Yehudah’s blessing takes note of the beauty of the world and immediately attributes it to a divine Creator.

Perhaps Rabbi Yaakov is suggesting that we bear guilt for our souls any time we admire beauty without invoking the ultimate Source of that beauty. We cannot just be dazzled by a sky filled with colorful high-flying kites – we need to follow the kitestrings all the way to the divine kite runner. We cannot become like Wallace Stevens’ complacent dreamer in “Sunday Morning,” who feels “elations when the forest blooms” but opts to view the world as “unsponsored, free.” Rather, we must attune ourselves once more to the “holy hush” that becomes audible, paradoxically, when we utter blessing.

If every gasp of admiration is immediately translated into blessing, then the appreciation of nature is not an interruption of learning, but an extension of it. If we say “Blessed is He” instead of “How lovely is this tree,” then we do not interrupt our studies; we rather draw the world into our studies, and our studies into the world. We realize that beautiful blossoming trees are occasions for speaking words of Torah, because what is Torah if not a tree of life?

The necessity for an inextricable interweaving of Torah and world is beautifully enacted in Masechet Taanit (7a), in which the rabbis invoke several arboreal metaphors to describe the study of Torah:

Rabbi B’naeh (lit. “lovely”) used to say:
Anyone who studies Torah for its own sake,
Torah becomes for him an elixir of life.
As it is written “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it” (Proverbs 3:18)
And it says, “It will be a cure for your body” (Proverbs 3:8)
And “All who find it find life.” (Proverbs 8:35).
And all who study Torah not for the sake of heaven,
Torah becomes for him an elixir of death,
As it says, “My teaching shall fall like rain,” (Deut. 32:2)
And there is no falling except in killing,
As it is said, “And they fell the heifer in the river.” (Deut. 21:4)
Rabbi Yirmiyeh said to Rabbi Zeyrah: Come and teach us something.
He [Rabbi Zeyrah] said to him [Rabbi Yirmiyeh]: My heart is weakened; I cannot.
[Rabbi Yirmiyeh then said] Then teach us a word of Aggadah.
He [Rabbi Zeyrah] said: Thus said Rabbi Yochanan:
What does it mean, “For man is a tree of the forest”? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
Is man really a tree of the forest?!
Rather since it is written, “Because from him you eat, you must not cut him down,”
And it is written, “Him you should destroy and cut down.”
How so?
If he is a proper student of Torah, ‘From him you eat, you must not cut him down,”
And if not, then “Him you should destroy and cut down.”….
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said, “Why is Torah compared to a tree,
As it is written, “It is a tree of life for those that hold fast to it”?
To teach you that just as a small tree will set a big one aflame,
So too, with Torah scholars, the lesser ones ignite the greater ones.
And thus Rabbi Chaninah would say:
Much have I learned from my teachers
and even more from my friends
and from my students, I have learned the most of all.

This sugya constructs a tree, with the verses quoted from the Bible serving as the trunk, and the two interpretations given to every statement branching off to left and right. These dichotomous offshoots are many: the elixir of life and the elixir of death; the study of Torah for the sake of heaven and its opposite; halachah and aggadah; proper and improper students; small trees that set each other aflame, and the Torah scholars who do the same. To map out this sugya is to construct a schematic tree from bottom up, with Rabbi Chaninah’s statement as a leafy crown.

I have sketched this schematic tree in the margins of my Masechet Taanit, which is made of paper which comes from trees. I carry this volume with me everywhere I go, and learn Torah as I walk. I somehow manage not to walk into any trees; and when I see a particularly beautiful one, I try to remember to utter words of blessing.

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