I n the third chapter of Pirkei Avos, which we learn this Shabbos, one mishnah seems perturbing at first reading. The mishnah says, “When a person is walking along the road reviewing his learning, and he interrupts his learning to say, ‘What a beautiful tree! What a beautiful field!’ Scripture considers him as one who forfeits his life” (Avos 3:7).

What does this mean? Are we really forbidden to enjoy the beauty of This World, forbidden to be captivated by the marvels of nature? Haven’t Chazal taught us otherwise, exhorting us to open our eyes and hearts to the wonderful world around us and draw from its pleasures? Each brachah we make is an expression of thanks, and we don’t say thank you for something that is out of bounds.

In fact, the blessings we recite over worldly pleasures, is a blessing upon viewing beautiful trees. Halachah bids us to say bircas ha’ilanos in the spring, when the fruit trees first come into bloom each year. The words of the blessing clearly imply that Judaism bids us to take pleasure in nature: “Blessed are You… Who has omitted nothing in His world, and has created in it good creations and good trees by which to give pleasure to people.”

If a tree was created for us to enjoy, why does the mishnah impose a stricture? Why is a person said to “forfeit his life” if he stops for a moment to admire a beautiful tree?

Looking more deeply into the sources, we find that taking pleasure in contemplating nature is actually an obligation — a religious obligation that is vital to anyone striving to be a tzaddik. In many places we find that our Torah Sages emphasize the value of connecting with pure, clean nature as an important factor in developing a well-balanced personality.

For example, Rabi Avraham, son of the Rambam, writes that delighting in natural scenery is a necessary component of religious and intellectual growth: “And therefore, even the most venerable, important, and learned of men, including the most pious and righteous among them, take pleasure and delight in viewing green lawns, beautiful gardens, flowing streams, and such” (Hamaspik L’Ovdei Hashem).

In modern times, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch of the Telshe yeshivah in Lithuania and a leading mussar personality, spoke of the importance of the aesthetic sense as a means of serving Hashem. He writes:

“The way of a great person is to live with full use of all his powers, to be aware of and sensitive of everything. He should not try to quash his feelings. Thus, the greater he becomes, the more awake and alive his emotions, and his sense of beauty, too, is fully developed; he is stirred and excited at the sight of a glorious natural landscape or the sound of a pleasant melody. And when he sees an exceedingly beautiful creature he is deeply affected… and he knows how to use this emotion for the most elevated purpose — recognition of the Creator. Not only does this not harm him or bring him down from his high level, but on the contrary, he raises the emotion to a high level and is raised with it, using it as a medium through which to contemplate Hashem and His greatness.” (Shiurei Daas, Vol. I, p. 194)

The concept of a sense of beauty goes all the way back to Gan Eden, from the moment Adam Harishon was created. In the Torah’s description of Gan Eden, we find the words, “Every tree that was pleasant to see and good for eating” (Bereishis 2:9). What does this pasuk teach us?

Rav Hirsch explains: “The garden supplied all of man’s material needs. Scripture, however, places the words ‘pleasant to see’ before ‘good for eating.’ That is, satisfying the sense of beauty precedes satisfying the desire for food. Here is where the sense of beauty is justified and sanctified. And here, too, man’s preeminence over all other species is revealed. Many forms of beauty are revealed in the creations of our world, and as far as we can verify, man is the only creature that is able to enjoy beauty. This shows the importance of the aesthetic sense to man’s ethical purpose. Joy in the beauty of nature brings us to enjoyment of ethical beauty as well. If a society doesn’t care for what is beautiful, a person in that society will also grow up wild. Man’s joy in aesthetic harmony is closely related to his joy in ethical harmony” (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch on the Torah).

So how, then, can the Tanna Rabi Yaakov forbid a person to express his delight with the beautiful tree?

Let’s look at the mishnah a little more carefully: “When a person is walking along the road and reviewing his learning, and he interrupts his learning to say, ‘What a beautiful tree…’ ” What the Tanna is telling us is that if you are pondering words of Torah as you walk, and you stop your learning and shift your thoughts to the blossoming trees, the lovely blue sky, the fresh air and greenery of a park, or the pounding of waves on the beach, you have put the means in place of the end.

Yes, aesthetic pleasure is an exceedingly important power of the human soul — but it’s not a stand-alone value. True, it is vital for the perfection of man, a means to achieving ethical beauty; but when a person is occupied with Torah learning — in other words, while he’s busy building his internal structure of beauty through the Torah’s teachings — he must not allow himself to be distracted by that which is merely a means to that end. If you will allow that distraction, says the Tanna, then your understanding of the proper place of Torah in your life is not as clear as it ought to be. Is it any wonder that in such a case you forfeit your life?

Remember that the Tanna speaks of a person who interrupts his learning. Saying, “What a beautiful tree!” is a mitzvah. The blessings we say when indulging in various pleasures add the spiritual dimension of grateful acknowledgment of Hashem to deepen these pleasures.

But if a person thinks he has to stop his learning in order to sip from the cup of life’s pleasures — in other words, if he sees a contradiction between the life of Torah and mitzvos and “really living” — then “he is considered by Scripture as one who forfeits his life.” For this means that he understands neither Torah nor life.

Life, says the Rambam, is like a stoked, blazing oven. A person who leans against the oven will be badly burned, while a person who moves as far as he can away from the oven will suffer from the cold. A wise person with a clear view of reality, who knows the laws of nature and the limitations of his body, will place himself at the ideal distance from the oven, where he will benefit from its heat and not get burned.

It’s the same with life. If a person keeps away from it out of fear of its temptations, his natural soul powers will remain trapped. It’s as if he were living at the North Pole, in a land of ice that withers his soul and distorts his moral sense.

On the other hand, if a person becomes addicted to unbridled fulfillment of every desire, taking physical indulgence to the extreme, he becomes like the one who clings to the blazing-hot oven — he will be consumed by the fire.

But Rabi Yaakov is actually teaching us about balance, telling us that one does not have to stop learning in order to say “What a beautiful tree!” In order to live well, giving expression to all the creative powers within the individual and of the collective, there is no need to reject the Torah and its ethics. On the contrary, the Torah provides the proper framework of balance that allows man to use all his powers to the fullest. It will keep him away from the extreme heat of immorality that incinerates man and society, and from the opposite extreme of frozen asceticism.

Rabi Yaakov is saying that while Torah might seem to some like a barrier preventing them from enjoying life, in fact it keeps us at the ideal temperature. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 664)