Monday, October 16, 2006

Breishis 2:5, Dveikus and the Beauty of Nature

Ve’chol Si’ach hasadeh terem yihyeh ba’aretz.
וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ

Si’ach, in this possuk, means trees. "And all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth."

In Pirkei Avos 3 it says “One who interrupts his learning and says How beautiful this tree is...the scripture views him as if he were guilty of a capital crime.”

ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו ואומר, מה נאה אילן זה ומה נאה נירכג זה, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו מתחיב בנפשו.

 The Tosfos Yomtov there brings the question that everyone asks, Which scripture is the Mishneh referring to? What verse in the Torah says such a thing?

Many answer that it is connected to the next mishneh which brings the possuk “Guard yourself and your life exceedingly lest you forget these things....”
רק הישמר לך ושמור נפשך מאוד, פן תשכח את הדברים   דברים ד,ט.
However, the Tosfos Yomtov brings from the Derech Chaim that the Gemara in Chagigoh 12 brings a passuk that warns against interrupting learning (hakotfim milu’ach alei si’ach, Iyov 30:4) which darshens the word “si’ach” to mean sichah b’teilah, idle talk. And he says that the reason the Mishna gives the example of commenting about a tree, an ilan, is because here in Breishis the word ‘si’ach’ means trees: Ilan in this Mishna is synonymous with Si'ach, and Si'ach has a dual meaning of 'tree' and 'idle talk'. In other words, mafsik mimishnaso with "si’ach batteil," or "talk about trees," is mischayeiv b’nafsho.

I once heard something in the name of Reb Mottel Pagremansky from Rav Gifter, which Harav Avram Lawrence of New York restated very well. The Rambam in one place says that a person will come to dveikus (emotional and spiritual communion with God) through an appreciation of the greatness Hashem shows in the complexity and beauty of nature. In another place, the Rambam says that we come to dveikus through the study of the Torah. In each place, he implies that the means is exclusive, so it seems to be a contradiction. The answer can be illustrated through a mashal.

Two couples come to an art museum. The unsophisticated couple looks at the artworks and they utter the usual comments— “my six year old could do better”, or “that’s just a hunk of junk,”, or “I don’t know what’s so special about a drawing of a sunflower”. The other couple will say, “such remarkable eloquence”, or “it is amazing how the artist was able to convey such a deep observation through this painting”, or “what a caustic critique he is making”, or even “that picture changed forever the way I look at the world”. The difference between the couples is that one has a body of information about art, and what he sees enhances his appreciation, his intellectual grasp of what art is and what it means to experience the world as a thinking being. He is educated enough to know the lexicon of art and the context of this work, the school of art that is being broadened. For the other, art is what gives you immediate and superficial emotional enjoyment.

The Rambam is saying that observing nature will do nothing for you unless you have studied the Torah. Esthetics are morally and religiously neutral.  The the sense of awe and pleasure that comes from seeing beauty is shared by the most refined and the most depraved.  Bach and de Sade, Eisenhower and Hitler, would all share the same sigh of pleasure upon seeing the Alps. But once you have studied the Torah and absorbed its lessons and views, then what you will see in nature is the signature of God on a world of perfect simplicity and infinite complexity. As the passuk says, “Gal einai ve’abita nifla’os miTorasecha”, uncover my eyes and I will gaze upon wonders in your Torah, which says this vort in two ways: first, gal einai— things are not always apparent, and we need help to see what is in front of us. Second, “abita nifla’os miTorasecha”-- that it is through the lens of Torah that we will see the wonders that are in front of us.

Imi Morosi Shetichyeh, who grew up in the Talmud Torah in Kelm (and was the only child allowed to pick raspberries in the Yeshiva yard and the only girl allowed to sit on the bench in the back during hakafos) and who studied in Yavne in Lithuania , said, in August ‘04/Ov ‘64, that this is what Chazal mean: if a person is mafsik mimishnaso to say mah na’eh ilan zeh, if he interrupts his study, to say "How beautiful this tree is," he is mischayev b’nafsho, this is a capital sin. But if he is not mafsik mimishnaso and he says mah na’eh as an integral part of his limud hatorah, then this is dveikus, he is becoming a daveik to the Ribbono shel olam.

ב,ט וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן הָאֲדָמָה כָּל עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה  וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים  בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.

Hashem created the beauty of the trees for our pleasure; until the appreciation of that beauty is properly correlated, it is no different than the pleasure of eating, and it can enhance either tov or ra.


  1. Very good vort.I have heard both your mothers explaination of the misnah as well the chosid yaavetz who say one is chayiv b'nafshoy even if his kavonah is topraise hashem because he has gone to a lesser form of shira/avodah.I would like to know what the exact meaning of 'chayiv b'nafsoy' is however.

  2. Where do we find nowadays such women. Kelm and Yavneh. Ilan zeh combined with mishnaso.

  3. What a beautiful appreciation! I just printed this post and the comments (minus this one)for my mother, a great admirer of a well-turned phrase, to read.