The sin of admiring nature

The sin of admiring nature

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick reinterprets a surprising Rabbinical teaching

As I sit down to write this piece, my desk is flooded with the sunlight that took far too long to arrive this summer. The rays pull my attention away from the task at hand to appreciate the beauty of nature, which had been obscured by months of clouds and rain.

Of course, I’m not the only one reacquainting myself with the magnificence of the natural world – it seems everywhere I go in London these days there are people enjoying aimless perambulations, afternoon refreshments at outdoor cafés, and the company of guests in their gardens. In short, summer has finally arrived and nearly no one is taking it for granted.

You might therefore be surprised to learn that our sages teach that it is forbidden to stop and smell the roses – as it were. In Pirkei Avot (3:7), Rabbi Shimon says ‘If a person is walking along while revising their Torah learning and interrupts themself to say, “how beautiful is this tree or field,” it’s as if that person has committed a capital offence.’

At first glance, this is an incredibly troubling teaching – how could it be so severe an infraction simply to admire a beautiful vista?! The Vilna Gaon explains this teaching by way of another, found in the Talmud (Baba Batra 79a), in which Rabbi Yonatan quotes Proverbs in order to say that anyone who separates themselves from Torah study condemns themselves to the pits of death. In short, for the rabbis, Torah is so important that it cannot be set aside for any matters other than physical or spiritual survival, and to them the appreciation of nature is certainly trivial in comparison.

However, I believe our sages are wrong here and miss the point of Rabbi Shimon’s teaching. The issue isn’t with someone interrupting their Torah learning to admire their surroundings – the issue is believing that such an act is disconnected from their Torah study.

In Psalm 92, which we recite every Shabbat, we say: ‘How great are Your works, Adonai! Your plans are beyond comprehension.’ That is, our tradition provides us with language to express awe and wonder at the impossibly complex grandeur of the universe. The challenge is to remember the One who created such beauty whenever we are so moved by it to take notice.

With the summer months lying in front of us, we will certainly find ourselves in moments of pastoral bliss. I invite you to use those moments not just to say, ‘how beautiful is this!’ but to allow yourself to contemplate the wonder of it all and to acknowledge the unfathomable source of that beauty.