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Seeing Hashem in a Tree

August 1, 2020

If we’re saying it three time a day already, we might as well know how to do it. “ואהבת את ה' אלקיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך, you shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources. (Devarim 5:5)” This is a verse from the end of our parsha, but is most familiar from our daily recitations of the shema. But, how does one develop a love for G-d? Love can be complicated enough when it’s between two people. How can a human being be expected to develop a sense of love for the One who is immortal, omniscient, and unfathomable? What we can do to fulfill this mandate of “You shall love Hashem, your G-d?”

One answer is found in the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot (Book of Mitzvot). There, he explains the mitzvah to love G-d demands of us to study the mitzvot and contemplate His teachings. In other words, we must learn the Torah. He then cites a midrash:

ולשון ספרי, לפי שנאמר "ואהבת את ה' אלהיך," איני יודע כיצד אוהב את המקום? תלמוד לומר, "והיו הדברים האלה אשר אנכי מצוך היום על לבבך," שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את מי שאמר והיה העולם.

The language of the [Midrash] Sifri is, it says “And you shall love Hashem, your G-d, but I do not know- how does one come to love Hashem? The verse [continues and] teaches, “And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart,” as through this, you will come to recognize the One who said “Let the world be.” (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment #3)

In other words, the Torah anticipates our question, and thus in the very next verse describes the means by which one can create this love. It is through the deep and contemplative study of the Torah and mitzvot. This is also the explanation of Rashi, Rabbeinu Bechaye, and others.

It’s surprising, however, when elsewhere the Rambam seems to write something completely different. In his Mishneh Torah, he explicitly asks, “והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו ויראתו, and what is the way to loving Him and fearing Him? (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2)” And he answers:

בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהן חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ, מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאוה תאוה גדולה לידע השם הגדול.

At a time when a person contemplates His (Hashem’s) actions and His incredibly wondrous creations, and he sees within them His infinite and endless wisdom, then immediately the person will love, praise, and glorify Him, and develop a deep desire to know Him. (ibid.)

This time, the Rambam writes nothing of Torah or mitzvot. After reading this, one would conclude that the best way to develop a love of Hashem is through studying science and nature, and through experiencing the beauty and grandeur of the world around us.

So which one is it?! What should we do? If I would like to develop and nurture my love of G-d, should I find a quiet place, close the door, and study Torah for many hours a day? Or should I travel the world, take walks in nature, and study the sciences? Which one did the Rambam really mean?

The answer, I believe, is that the Rambam understands that in order to fully love Hashem, both are important. In Sefer HaMitzvot, where he explains mitzvot in the most succinct and essential way, he writes only of Torah study. When it comes to loving Hashem, that is the primary ingredient. Without some time of regular Torah study, achieving a love of Hashem is very difficult. But in Mishneh Torah, he broadens the nature of this mitzvah, and explains that in order to more deeply develop one’s love, if one seeks to fulfill “you shall love Hashem, you G-d,” on the highest level, then he should study the beauty and infinite wisdom that G-d invested into the creation of His world. The first step must be Torah study, but when one’s understanding and knowledge of Torah influences the way he perceives and understands the natural world, it can greatly increase his connection to Hashem.

There is a mishna in Pirkei Avot that bothered me for a long time:

רַבִּי יעקב אוֹמֵר, הַמְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְשׁוֹנֶה, וּמַפְסִיק מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, מַה נָּאֶה אִילָן זֶה וּמַה נָּאֶה נִיר זֶה, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ.

R. Yaakov said, one who walks on the road while learning Torah, but interrupts his learning and exclaims, “How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!” The Torah considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul. (Pirkei Avot 3:9)

It seems a bit harsh. Are we supposed to wear blinders so thick that we don’t notice anything around us? Are we supposed to ignore the beauty of blooming tree? Why does R. Yaakov speak so harshly?

Perhaps the key word of the mishna is “ומפסיק, and he interrupts.” In halacha, a הפסק means an interruption or a break that is significant enough to separate and divide. For example, one may not speak between making a blessing and eating a food, as that would constitute a הפסק, a disconnect between the blessing and eating, which would render the blessing invalid. A הפסק doesn’t just mean a pause, but a break or divide.

R. Yaakov speaks of someone who learns Torah. In fact, the person he describes is so committed to Torah study that he is learning it as he walks outside. And he also appreciates the beauty of nature, as is clear from his noticing, and mentioning, the beauty of the tree and field which he passes. The problem is that there is a הפסק between his Torah study and his appreciation of the world around him. His Torah doesn’t impact the way that he sees the world, and therefore, he sees the tree’s beauty as merely something pleasant to look at, and not something G-dly. He is smack in the middle of learning, and yet when he sees a beautiful piece of nature, he stops his learnings and observes the world as something distinct and disconnected from Torah and Hashem. This person, R. Yaakov, teaches, bears guilt for his soul, as he is spending his life studying Torah, but he so sorely misses one of its fundamental purposes.

We are fortunate to live in an area of great beauty. Each season brings it with new colors. We are surrounded by magnificent trees, flowers, and bodies of water. And during normal times, many have the opportunity to travel and view the beauty of other places. One can merely exclaim, “How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this flower! How beautiful is this water!” Or we can choose to live the synthesized life of the Rambam, whereby we observe and study the world around us so that we can more proudly declare, “How beautiful is this world that Hashem created! I love the world, and I love you Hashem!”

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784