Rabbi Yaakov said: "One who travels upon the road studying Torah and interrupts his studies, saying, "How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!" -- Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.
Ethics of the Fathers, 3:9
In the twilight years of his life, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the extraordinary leader of 19th century German Jewry, announced his plans to visit the Swiss Alps. When pressed for the reason behind planning so arduous a journey at his advanced age, Rabbi Hirsch replied, "I may have only a few years left, and when I stand before the Almighty on Judgment Day, I don't want Him to ask me, ‘Shimshon, why didn't you see My Alps?'"
Clearly, Rabbi Hirsch understood that everything in this world is an expression of God's will. He understood with equal clarity that the Creator intends for us to utilize everything under the sun in our divine service, so that we may come to a greater appreciation of Him by acquiring a greater appreciation of His works.
Indeed, we find a similar insight concerning the blue strand of our tzitzit, the fringes the Torah commands us to wear on the corners of our garments. The Talmud explains that blue reminds us of the sea, which reminds us of the sky, which reminds us of the heavenly throne of God.
Why do we need to recall the sea in order to recall the sky? Just as the sea reflects the blue color of the sky, so does the physical world reflect the spiritual essence of the higher worlds beyond the heavens. Again, it is through our understanding of the physical world around us that we are able us to acquire some understanding of our Creator.
All of which seems to contradict Rabbi Yaakov and our mishna. To admire the beauty of the trees is to acknowledge the wonders of creation and praise their Creator. To admire the plowed field is to recognize the partnership that exists between the Creator of the field and God's servants, who demonstrate their gratitude by making use of what He has provided for them.
How can Rabbi Yaakov possibly suggest, therefore, that to laud the Almighty's creations and those who benefit from them is to endanger one's own physical and spiritual well-being?
It happened once, so the story goes, that on the occasion of a visit to the White House, the Israeli prime minister commented on a bright red phone he noticed behind the president's desk.
"Oh, that's a very special phone," answered the president. "That's my hotline to God."
"You have a hotline to God?" asked the prime minister, obviously impressed.
"Yes," replied the president. "But I don't use it very often."
"And why is that?"
"It's extremely expensive. Every minute costs five hundred million dollars."
A few months later on a visit to Israel, the president noticed a similar phone behind the desk of the prime minister. "That looks identical to the phone I have," commented the president.
"It is," said the prime minister. "It's my own hotline to God."
"Do you use it often?" asked the president.
"All the time. It only costs $4.95 per minute."
"How can that be?" exclaimed the president. "500 million dollars for me, and less than five dollars for you?!"
"Well, you see," explained the prime minister, "Here, it's a local call."
THROUGH A GLASS, CLEARLY
We all understand that there are many ways to accomplish a goal, and that some ways are far more effective and efficient than others. In His divine wisdom, the Creator designed a world of infinite complexity and breathtaking diversity, allowing human beings uncountable ways of recognizing His hand in creation and of understanding how the world around us reflects world above us. Every tree, every field, every mountain, and every stream yields some insight into the nature of the Almighty.
As much as the wonders of nature may illuminate the presence of the Almighty, nothing can match the illumination of His Torah.
However, not every lens through which we may see God reveals Him with equal clarity. Indeed, God may be found in even the darkest places, but His presence is far more easily recognized in proportion to the amount of spiritual light available.
As much as the wonders of nature may illuminate the presence of the Almighty, nothing can match the illumination of His Torah. In fact, the Aramaic name for the Torah is d'oraissa, meaning source of light.
In the same way that a local call goes through more clearly and easily than a long distance call, so too can we recognize God more clearly and easily through the study of His Torah than through the less direct method of seeking Him in His creations. As much as we might be inspired by the multifaceted brilliance of God's handiwork, nothing reveals the pure essence of our Creator with greater clarity than His Torah.
Therefore, says Rabbi Yaakov, although God may be found in the beauty of every tree and every field, one who is already involved in the study or review of Torah and interrupts his learning to praise God's creation is in fact taking a step backward, not forward. The purpose of man in this world is to bring himself ever closer in his perception of and relationship with God. Consequently, one who slips backward by failing to recognize how the Torah enables him to succeed in the very reason for his existence invokes the most severe indictment before the heavenly court, calling into question the merit by which he exists and "bearing the guilt for his soul."
Conversely, after one uses the marvels of nature to heighten his sensitivity to God's hand in creation, he is ready to take the next step. By looking into the Torah he will find that it brightens his eyes and illuminates his senses, revealing to him the presence of God in every facet of his world and in every aspect of his life.