הם אמרו לך בוא
ותגיע אל האושר
ואתה מתחבט, ולוקח
טיול עד הבוקר,
להפסיק את הטוב,
מבקש תשובה בזמן
(שוטי הנבואה, הכל מן ג׳ה)
They told you come along
you’ll find happiness
And you hide,
a hike until daybreak
Afraid to leave
to interrupt the goodness
You seek timely answers
(Shotei ha-Nevuah, All from Jah)
Whenever thinking about or relating to the natural beauty of this world in a spiritual sense, the words of Maimonides come to mind. In the course of instruction to achieve fear and love of God, the Great Eagle tells us that we should pause to contemplate the immensity and the beauty of the natural world:
When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God's] great name, as David stated: "My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God" [Psalms 42:3].
By appreciating the infinite complexity and majesty of God’s world, the heart of a religious individual should be softened, opened up to receive a greater sense of the divine presence. However, the continuation of Maimonides’ words left me feeling somewhat deflated, and jarred with my own experiences in/with nature:
When he [continues] to reflect on these same matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, appreciating how he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge, as David stated: "When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers... [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him" [Psalms 8:4-5]
True, whether beholding a mountain vista, dwarfed by a towering redwood, or drizzled by the briny spray of waves crashing upon coastal boulders — nature can remind us of our infinitesimal and precarious place in this world. However, on the spiritual register, the conclusion reached by Maimonides seems at odds with the encounter with nature. “Tiny, lowly, and dark” do not do justice to the sense of serenity, majesty, and illumination that God’s creations may elicit in the modern soul.1 Being in and being with nature serve vital spiritual functions in a world increasingly abstracted and mediated by technology. In a quote popularized by the social media account of Badlands National Park, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright enjoined us to “study nature, love nature, and stay close to nature, for it will never fail you.” As Maimonides himself explains later, “When a person meditates on these matters and recognizes all the creations… and appreciates the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in all these creations, he will add to his love for God. His soul will thirst and his flesh will long with love for God, blessed be He” (Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 4:12).
There are other authentic spiritual responses to nature to be found in our sacred texts. In general, perhaps taking the words of Maimonides a step further, Rabbi Avraham Yizhak ha-Kohen Kook writes:
How deprived are those people who do not see and reflect upon the wonders of nature and its laws — the greatness of the works of our Lord in the world.
Like Maimonides, R. Kook sees in nature valuable, even crucial spiritual instruction for the soul. However, where Maimonides saw a turn to feelings of smallness, R. Kook adopts a different approach:
Without a strong and healthy approach and outlook upon the physical world, one’s spiritual outlook is blurred. Brazenness and heresy come to the world, demanding that proper due be given to the physical world because of those unchecked religious theorists who cast physical life as a burden, negating and rooting it out… and those who engage the physical world ethically and honestly, whether those who give their efforts to the body and its earthly needs or those who dedicate time to the scientific study of all matters pertaining to the physical world — on this earth and beyond and all that is contained within — with their hearts and minds turned to the spirit and soul that infuses everything; these people draw forth blessings of contentedness and peace in the world, these warriors whose hearts have been touched by God, rebuilding the ruins and paving the paths.2
Writing about the spiritual effects of the natural world, R. Kook’s language here brings to mind the best of Thoreau and Emerson. The American Transcendentalists believed in the inherent good of people, and that the essential goodness has been corrupted by society’s institutions and mores. They believed in the purity of nature and of our inner spirit, despite the subjectivity of our experiences. Aligning and immersing oneself with nature — preferably alone — was a primary path to attaining transcendent illumination of the soul. First, however, one must learn how to look at nature. In his essay, Nature, a seminal transcendentalist text, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:
To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.
While the transcendentalist God of Emerson might be quite different than R. Kook’s immanent God of Israel, the illuminating effects of God’s natural world are one and the same. The rejuvenation of the soul and the studied alignment of the soul with the physical world are of a piece. Gone are feelings of smallness and impotency, replaced with spiritual satisfaction, loins girded to face the dimming and blurring effects of mundane life upon the soul.
One more element left for us to discuss here is the role of beauty. Wiser and far more learned Rabbis have reflected on the role of aesthetics in the philosophy of R. Kook,3 but there is still work to be done on harmonizing R. Kook’s aesthetics with his views on the role of the natural world in spiritual life. In another surprising fragment, R. Kook writes:
In distinction to those diligent students, the strictly regimented learners (=mahmirei ha-hatmadah), there is a pressing need for those of enough strength to show us how to reveal the light of inner freedom through trekking (=tiyul) and meaningful rest, expanding the spiritual knowledge through which the soul is elevated…4
By placing the “trekkers” in relief to the “strictly regimented learners” cloistered in the beit midrash, I believe R. Kook is gesturing to a kind of spiritual education that can only happen outside its walls — in nature. By reflecting on the beauty of the natural world, new pathways of the soul are opened up and the seeker is elevated by the wonder that surrounds them. Perhaps this is the importance of those expanses outside the traditional world of text where the Jewish soul finds so much sustenance. Perhaps R. Kook would agree with the following words of Emerson, found later in Nature, at the end of the third chapter (emphasis added):
The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. This element I call an ultimate end. No reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty. Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe. God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All. But beauty in nature is not ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty, and is not alone a solid and satisfactory good. It must stand as a part, and not as yet the last or highest expression of the final cause of Nature.
May it be the will of God that our thirsty souls find refuge, comfort, and nourishment both within the walls of the beit midrash and deep in the wilderness, whenever our spirits are drawn out, beckoned to the beauty of nature.
1. Part of this may have to do with the fact that in Maimonides’ pre-industrial time, nature and the wilderness may have primarily elicited feelings of vulnerability and the unknown, whereas in today’s urbanized world of cities and technology, nature and the wilderness are primarily associated with feelings of serenity and escape.↩
2. Shemonah Kevatzim, 1:590, emphasis added; To my knowledge, and according to the indices of thekevatzim, this fragment does not appear anywhere else in R. Kook’s edited and revealed writings.↩
3. I refer to the excellent, and to my mind, under-appreciated work of Rabbis Chaim Brovender, Yedidya Sinclair and Jeffrey Saks available at the ATID Art Initiative: http://www.atid.org/resources/art/ravkook.asp. For the locus classicus of discussions centering on R. Kook’s aesthetics, see Orot ha-Kodesh vol. 3, p. 306.↩
4. Shemonah Kevatzim, 2:212; appears also in Arpilei Tohar, p. 43↩