In the spring of 1950, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook published an article entitled “The Beauty of the Tree.” The article addresses the divide that we sometimes make between our inner spiritual life and the outer world, especially the universe and its natural beauty.
The Sages taught that we should appreciate the spectacular renewal of life in springtime. A person who sees fruit trees blossoming in the month of Nissan is instructed to recite birkat ha-ilanot, the blessing of the trees:
“Blessed are You... Ruler of the universe, who left nothing lacking in His world, and created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees to give people pleasure in them.”
And yet, we find in Pirkei Avot what appears to be the diametrically opposed view:
“Rabbi Jacob taught: One who is reviewing his Torah studies while walking along the way and interrupts his study to exclaim, ‘How splendid this tree is!’ ‘How fair this field is!’ — Scripture considers this as if he has forfeited his soul.” (Avot 3:9)
Why was Rabbi Jacob so opposed to appreciating the beauty of nature?
The error of such a person, Rav Tzvi Yehuda explained, is not that he voiced his aesthetic appreciation for graceful trees and scenic vistas. That is perfectly legitimate. Indeed, the Sages formulated a special brachah to express our wonder and marvel at nature’s springtime reawakening, with its effusion of colorful flowers and trees in bloom.
Rather, his error is in regarding this wonder as an interruption from his Torah study. He mistakenly compartmentalizes life, isolating his inward-directed spiritual life of prayer and Torah from the outside world’s beauty and grandeur. By doing so, “he forfeits his soul” — he abandons his soul’s sense of beauty and its harmony with the natural universe.
The wondrous power of creation is revealed in the blossoming of plants and trees. Creation is a continuous process — “that God created to [continue to] develop” (Gen. 2:3). The universe’s development is completed with the highest capabilities of humanity. At our most perfected state we become partners with God in creating the world (Shabbat 10a).
Our spiritual growth parallels the growth of trees. Like trees, our spiritual potential reaches up to the sky. Thus we find that the tzaddik is compared to a towering tree, providing fruit and shade: “The righteous flourishes like a palm; he grows great, like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalms 92:13).
We need to integrate the beauty of nature — “How splendid this tree is” — within the context of Torah. We need to recognize that this natural beauty appears within it and through it. The Torah itself is called a “tree of life for all who hold to it” (Proverbs 3:18).
This inclusive outlook reveals the spiritual splendor of the natural world. It is this insight that inspires us to recognize and thank the One “Who created goodly creatures and goodly trees.”
Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah noted that the author of this mishnah is Rabbi Jacob. In another teaching, Rabbi Jacob compared this world to an anteroom, where we prepare ourselves to enter the palace, i.e., the World to Come (Avot 4:16). The significance of this statement is that there exists a fundamental connection between the physical and spiritual worlds. They are not two separate domains, but rather comprise together a complete structure. Therefore the lofty splendor of the palace-world is able to penetrate and ennoble the material world.
This approach is particularly valid in the Land of Israel. As the Midrash teaches, “Do you wish to see the Shechinah in this world? Then study Torah in the Land of Israel” (Midrash Tehillim). Torah study in Eretz Yisrael enables one to perceive God’s Presence in this world. One experiences the beauty of the world and is able to discern the inner splendor of the trees.
(Adapted from LeNetivot Yisrael vol. II, pp. 144-146)