Torah, Nature and Love of God
"The Nile will swarm with frogs, and when they emerge, they will be in your palace, in your bedroom, and [even] in your bed. [They will also be in] the homes of your officials and people, even in your ovens and kneading bowls." (Exodus 7:28)
The second plague which God brought upon the Egyptians was frogs. These frogs invaded every place in Egypt, including the ovens fired up for baking.
The Talmud (Pesachim 53b) relates that the frogs were the inspiration for Chananiah, Misha'el and Azaryah.
What did Chananiah, Misha'el, and Azaryah see that caused them to enter the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar? They reasoned a fortiori from the frogs of Egypt. If frogs, which are not commanded to sanctify God's Name, entered the fiery furnace in order to sanctify God's Name, how much more so should we, who are commanded to sanctity God's Name, do so.
This Talmud raises the issue of how nature can serve as a means of coming to the knowledge of God. Let us consider some of the uses and misuses of the contemplation of nature.
Maimonides in Sefer HaMitzvot says that the path to love of God is through Torah learning. Yet, in Foundations of Torah, Maimonides says that contemplating the natural world and its awe-inspiring wonders leads one to love of God. The fact is that both of these paths are ultimately one. The Torah was the blueprint for the creation of the world, and thus nature is merely the physical manifestation of Torah. The Ten Commandments (Aseres Hadibros), in which the entire Torah is alluded to, correspond to the Ten Utterances (Asarah Ma'amaros), with which the world was created. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between nature and Torah as paths to God.
The Midrash says that the Almighty did not create the world with the first letter, aleph, for it signifies "cursed," but rather with the second letter, bet, which signifies "blessing." But to placate the aleph, which felt slighted, God began the Ten Commandments with an aleph - ano'chee.
When it comes to using nature as a path to God, one's explorations must be carefully guided, so that one indeed finds God through his observation of nature. As King David proclaimed, God is to be found in nature:
"When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, I am inspired to realize my insignificance in relationship to God, Who is overwhelming." (Psalms 8:4)
But there remains a danger in the observation of nature as the Torah warns us:
"Lest you raise your eyes heavenward and observe the sun, the moon and the stars, and you are enticed to bow to them and serve them." (Deut. 4:19)
Yuri Gargarin, the first Soviet cosmonaut, announced upon returning to Earth that he was now sure that God did not exist (God forbid), because he did not see Him. On the other hand, American astronauts on one of the Apollo missions transmitted breathtaking views of the earth from space, and recited Psalm 119, "The Heavens declare the glory of God...." Two observations of the same thing, two divergent responses.
The bet of "blessing" must be clear and decisive when it comes to observing God through nature. However, the path of Torah is not fraught with such danger. Quite the contrary, the inner light of Torah study guides one toward the good. When it comes to Torah, even that which can potentially be a curse, the aleph, can be inspired and directed by the inner light of Torah for the good. For this reason, Torah study must always be the primary path, the aleph. Only one steeped in the study of Torah can truly and properly utilize the path of observing nature, the second path, the bet.
Two blessings precede the Shema, which contains the Mitzvah of love of God. The first, Yotzer Ohr, deals with nature and all of its aspects. The second, Ahava Rabba, deals with Torah study. Creation precedes the giving of the Torah chronologically, and hence the blessing on nature is first. The blessing of nature, however, begins with a bet - boruch atah - while the blessing of Torah begins with an aleph - ahava rabba. In actual practice, the study of Torah must be given priority.
The custom is to recite Barchi Nafshi after Mincha on Shabbos during the winter, and to learn Pirkei Avos during the summer months. Barchi Nafshi represents the path toward God through nature, and Pirkei Avos the path of Torah study. In the winter, nature is dormant, while Torah study is at its peak, since the long nights are conducive to the study of Torah. Therefore the path of nature must be emphasized through the recitation of Barchi Nafshi, which speaks of the wonders of nature. In the summer, however, the opposite is true. Nature is in its full glory, but the nights are short and Torah study is at its low ebb. Hence the need to learn Pirkei Avos which emphasizes the path of Torah. Here, too, Barchi Nafshi, nature, begins with a bet, and Avos begins with an aleph, to inform us which path must always be primary.
All creation was designed to inspire and lead us to love God. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) says that on the fifth day of the week, we recite Chapter 81 of Psalms, "Sing out to the God of our strength," for on this day birds and fish were created to praise God's Name. Rashi explains that it is not the birds and fish themselves which sing God's praises; rather when people observe the birds and fish, they give praise to the One Who created them. Similarly, Perek Shira, which relates the songs of various animals, plants and inanimate objects, is explained by Rabbi Yosef Mitrani, in his work Beis Elokim, as referring not to the utterances of these creatures and objects, but to the responses the natural phenomena evoke in the human beings who observe and study them.
The accessibility of nature to our physical senses is an important supplement to our knowledge of God. As physical beings, we are affected more by what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste than by what we know intellectually. Although Moses was informed of the sin of the Golden Calf by God, he did not actually break the Tablets until he personally observed the sin himself.
Faith and love of God must be made as real and intense as that which we experience with our senses. The Torah manifested in nature helps one concretize his faith.
Entering the fiery furnace to sanctify God's name required great strength and commitment. Unless Chananiah, Misha'el and Azaryah had reached a level where their knowledge of God had become concretized by their senses and observed as a fact of nature, they might have shied away from taking that awesome step and wrongly justified themselves by misapplying the command to "live by them." They saw in nature the sanctification of God's Name by the frogs, and this supplemented their knowledge of the mandate to sanctify God's Name. Their new knowledge gave them the courage and will to fulfill that which they knew to be intellectually binding. By seeing sanctification of God's Name represented in nature, they sensed it, they felt it. If frogs have the strength to do this, they reasoned, surely that same strength exists within us.
May we steep ourselves in Torah learning so that in observing the world around us, we can be inspired, encouraged and strengthened to navigate our paths to faith and love of God.