Tu Bishvat: Finding God in nature

Intuitively, religious people sense spiritual meaning in nature. What are the different ways in which nature can enhance us religiously and spiritually?

 GAZELLE VALLEY, Jerusalem.  (photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)
(photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

A strident rabbinic statement condemns disrupting Torah study to ponder the beauty of nature: Whoever halts Torah study to appreciate natural beauty has committed a crime sinful enough to warrant death.

Unwilling to accept the literal reading of this statement and disinclined to view nature appreciation as a religious crime, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook reinterpreted this severe admonition. Ideally, nature should be viewed as an integral element of religious experience and not as an interruption. The rabbis were only cautioning against nature appreciation that doesn’t evoke a spiritual response and would therefore entail an interruption of religious thought.

Drawing spiritual meaning from nature is not incongruent with Torah study and would not be forbidden. Disengaging nature from religion is the crime the rabbis were warning about.

Intuitively, religious people sense spiritual meaning in nature. What are the different ways in which nature can enhance us religiously and spiritually?

Judaism’s seminal moment occurred at Mount Sinai when God directly revealed His word and His will to His chosen people. Ever since that epic encounter, we have been deeply engrossed in the study of His word. Our ancestors, though, who didn’t experience revelation at Sinai, discovered God by studying nature. In identifying God through nature, they didn’t just ponder the cold science of our world but detected a moral spirit which supported life and human welfare.

Mount Sinai (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Mount Sinai (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A midrash depicts Abraham as strolling through a city that was “alive” with light, and deducing that there must be a creator of this flourishing world of human life and welfare. A religious Jew doesn’t view nature solely through the cold lenses of physics and math but detects the moral spirit of God infusing His world and supporting life, especially human welfare.

Even though we all experienced mass revelation and can access God through His directly revealed word, we, like our ancestors, can still trace the divine Other through His moral spirit suffusing nature.

Sadly, Darwin tarnished this view of nature by depicting a natural world of violence, rivalries and survival of the fittest. Jews don’t share this harsh view of a hostile and violent natural order. Instead, they see in nature a delicately balanced system carefully calibrated to support life.

The great beyond

Nature should humble us by its vastness and enormity. Exposure to the immensity of nature should open our imaginations to the incalculability and infinity of God. Having scanned the heavens and pondered infinity, King David exclaims, “What is man that he should even merit mention.”

“What is man that he should even merit mention.”

King David

Religious sin and moral weaknesses are often the product of shrinking human imagination. Pressure and momentary needs narrow our perspective and force us into flawed and unfortunate decisions. Sin always stems from a tragic barter, in which we forfeit our long-term future for short-term needs. The resetting of healthy vision and broad perspective helps us avoid moral myopia and protects us against religious failure. The immensity of nature helps restore proper perspective on man and his world.

The 19th-century English poet John Keats described this ability of nature to restore proportion and religious spirit: “Then on the shore, Of the wide world I stand alone, and think, Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” Hopefully, glancing at the “wide world” helps maintain “wide imagination” against the narrowing effect of self-interest.

In lockstep with man

A religious Jew doesn’t only look to nature to detect divine morality or to reset human proportion. Nature is a dynamic and ever-changing system which is impacted by human behavior. Under ideal conditions, a perfect natural system exists in complete harmony with man and in full cooperation with human interest. So it was in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time, and so it will be when history concludes and human beings recover utopia.

At certain milestones of history, as humanity veered closer to God, nature became revitalized. The spies return from their mission to Israel with enormous and outsized fruit. The pending entry of the Jews into their homeland had awakened nature’s bounty. Similarly, the renewed blooming of the modern State of Israel, after centuries of parched infertility, signals that history is veering once again to a better state for humanity and for nature. The state of nature mirrors the moral and historical progress of humanity. By assessing this state, we can gauge the moral progress of history.

Lost innocence

Finally, nature can remind us of something we all have lost – our primal innocence. We were all born into this world pure and noble, but life has taken its toll and has corrupted our native virtue. Watching nature daily renew itself rebuilds hope in our own ability to restore our own purity.

The 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth wrote: “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky, So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man.”

“My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky, So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man.”

William Wordsworth

As we mature from children to adults, we lose our innocence. Religion demands of us and inspires us to restore that lost purity. Nature makes us believe that we can. In its wholeness we see a glimmer of the virtue we can recover within ourselves.

Nature allows us to detect the moral imprint of God, while its beauty and synchronicity are odes and hymns to God. Nature’s vastness and sweep humble us, opening our imagination to eternity. Finally, nature’s constant renewal demonstrates that we, too, can renew our inner decency. ❖

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.