Q. I was puzzled when I read in Pir’kei Avot that if a person is walking along rehearsing his studies and stops to look at a tree and remarks, “How beautiful that tree is!” deserves to lose his life. What has he or she done wrong?
A. The saying is in Pir’kei Avot 3:7. There are different versions of who said it but regardless of the name of the author, there can be no objection to a person praising a tree or any other part of nature. Nature’s grandeur reveals the greatness of God. There are b’rachot to say when one sees something beautiful. So what is the sin in taking a walk and acclaiming the trees?
The clue is in the opening words of the passage, “A person is walking by the way and rehearsing his studies…”. When you study Torah you should be concentrating. If you are easily distracted, you have a problem and need to do something about it. The sage quoted in Pir’kei Avot does not actually say that the person concerned deserves to die; what he says is mit’chayyev b’nafsho – “he jeopardises his life (literally, his soul)”. Letting one’s mind be diverted is bad for the mind and soul.
However, the Ba’al Shem Tov, who spent years of his life communing with the outdoors, has another approach. He quotes a verse from the story of No’ach, Tzohar ta’aseh latevah – “make an opening for light in the ark” (Gen. 6:16). He points out that tevah sometimes means “a word” and he therefore reads the verse as if it said, “Make an opening for light in every word that you speak”. If, then, one thinks of a tree as a source of inspiration, the tree is no longer an interruption but an integral part of one’s learning.