(Courtesy: RABBI DR. LOUIS JACOBS )
There is a saying attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev which goes like this. You no doubt recall the passage in ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ where it says, ‘Whoever is walking along and studying and he sees a tree or a furrow and he says, how beautiful is this tree or how marvellous is this furrow (he admires the handiwork of the farmer or the beauty of the tree) he is guilty of forfeiting his life (because he should not be distracted from the Torah).’ This does not mean that the Rabbis had no sense of beauty. Some understand it that way, but that is not what it means. The meaning of the passage is: there is a time for admiring trees, there is a time for admiring furrows, but if you are studying and you are rehearsing your lesson, do not stop to admire the trees.
If a Professor in Cambridge College, shall we say, is giving a lecture in Mathematics, and he sees some of the students looking out of the window and admiring the view, he would be justified in saying ‘I’m all for admiring the view, but there is a time and place for everything.’ The saying is not against admiring nature. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev understands it, however, in a deeper way: the meaning is, the Jew’s way to God is through the Torah. There are people who can find God through the trees, through the beauties of nature and many people have found God in that way. There are people who can find God through social institutions, through the improvement of the world, through making the world a better place, represented by the furrow.
These are legitimate ways to God, and may even be legitimate ways to God for the Jew. But for him they are not the main way. The main way to God for the Jew or, as we would say, the most distinctive feature of Judaism, is the idea of the Mitzva, the idea of the special vocabulary of worship that we call the Mitzvot. The reason why that is the main way to God is because that is our Torah, that is how it has developed, that has been the Jewish vocabulary of worship.
It is just like Hebrew. Very few people today would say that Hebrew is the sacred language because it dropped down from heaven. The old lady who started to learn Hebrew said, ‘When I go there I want to be able to address the Almighty in His own language’. Well, we would not take it quite like that (Hebrew from one point of view is just another Semitic language. It does not seem to be the earliest Semitic language). Yet Hebrew is a distinctive language of the Torah and of prayer. Someone once described Greek as the key to Paradise and in the philosophical sense it may be true, but Hebrew is the key to Paradise in the religious sense, certainly for the Jew. This would apply to the Mitzvot as a whole.