This period of pandemic has opened up different ways of looking at the world. Different approaches, different values, and different positions. For myself and my family, our small garden has offered one of those changes. It was blessed with grass that did not grow too well and until the lockdown period did not contain that much to enjoy. It is now full of growth and life.
We have potatoes and tomatoes, thyme and fenugreek, geraniums, and sunflowers and more. I have become interested in bringing garden birds into our small patch with bird feeders, a bird bath tempting the beautiful variety of bird life in. And this means spending more time looking out into the garden at the plethora of life that is blessing it now.
But one other personal delightful diversion from the pandemic has been learning a page a day of the Talmud, the Daf Yomi programme. It is the first time I have attempted to build this into my life, and I am so thrilled that it has worked. But there are times I must admit when my eyes veer from the page of Talmud to the window of my conservatory to view the garden and check if any birdlife appears. And suddenly, I remembered a statement in Ethics of the Fathers, a book of Rabbinic morality which is part of the Mishna. Here it is for you learn:
‘Rabbi Jacob said, One who is reviewing his Torah study while walking on the way, and interrupts his Torah study to say “What a beautiful tree”, or “What a beautiful field”, is regarded by Scripture as if he endangered his soul’
Maybe this statement was creating a sense of prioritisation. Torah, the text that created the Jewish nation, is surely more connected to our national soul, than the natural world we observe outside. But this approach surely comes with dangers. I could spend all my time learning, and not give enough attention to the predicament that God’s world outside is in. So, I was delighted to find the commentary of the famous Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague on this statement. There the Maharal emphasises that the above statement is talking about someone who separates from learning in order to view the beauty of nature. The individual is then turning from away from a life source of our Jewish identity. But if this is a temporary break from one’s learning to which he or she returns soon after, all is good. So, I could carry on delighting at learning the Torah, and taking welcome breaks to check on the natural diversity through my conservatory window.
Of course, the statement in Ethics of the Fathers mentions the importance of not interrupting the studying of Torah. It does not however refer to praying, to davening. Prayer and Learning Torah are of course different. Torah to many is a way we engage with the will of God through our intellectual faculties, whereas prayer can be an emotional path to God. Is it possible that the emotive beauty of nature can pull me away from the Talmudic pursuit of understanding; but augment and deepen my appreciation of prayer?
Either way, with the natural world under threat in so many ways, this is more than a lachrymose posturing towards nature. Rather this can be an opportunity to proactively bring God’s world of nature into our world of learning God’s Torah without tipping the balance too much.