How Wonderful is this Tree

Avot (3:7) | Yisrael Bankier | 12 days ago

R' Shimon said, if one walks and learns, and interrupts his learning and says, "How wonderful is this tree! How pleasant is this ploughed field!" The Torah considers it as if he is liable for his life.

Avot 3:7

The above statement of R' Shimon is quite damning. Here is an individual that is learning while travelling – an admirable undertaking. He breaks to marvel at nature, and R' Shimon considers criminal. The Bartenura, in his second comment explains that the Mishnah is stressing that despite breaking to appreciate nature and bless Hashem, nevertheless R' Shimon is critical of interrupting one's learning.

The Tifferet Yisrael explains that the roads were generally dangerous and if one chose to break from learning, which was affording him protection, then he is liable for any harm. This understanding is consistent with the earlier Mishnah (3:4), where R' Chanina ben Chachinai taught that one who travels alone and does not learn is liable for his life.

Other's explain that it is the interruption, irrespective of the environment, that is criticised. Kehati cites the Rashbatz who explains that interrupting learning for a trivial matter is a slight on the honour of Torah.

The Meiri explains that one has a tendency to be drawn after idle chatter and empty matters. The interruption may trigger a downwards spiral that would lead to abandoning learning all together. The comment of the Meiri is not that farfetched. Irving Bunim comments that R' Shimon was the grandson of Acher, one who was "walking on the path", yet diverted to other studies. He suggests that Acher may have been in R' Shimon mind when providing this teaching.

The Baal Shem Tov however explains our Mishnah in a very different manner. Citing the pasuk from our parasha, "tamim tihiye im elokecha", he explains that even when one is engaged in Torah study, he should ensure that he is still "tamim" – completely with Hashem.

The Baal Shem Tov reflects on our Mishnah and asks why it needs to comment that the individual was learning on his way. That fact is obvious, since the Mishnah comments that he stopped from his learning. Furthermore, the Mishnah continues that the "katuv", generally used when referring to a specific verse, considers it as if he is liable for his life, but does not include which verse.

The Baal Shem Tov therefore explains that the Mishnah is discussing a person how is travelling on the right path, yet he is alone – he is not connecting to Hashem in his learning. The Mishnah continues that "he learns and breaks from his learning". In other words, it his learning that separates him from Hashem. This person finds success in his learning and see it as his own. The subject of our Mishnah then comments, "how amazing is this tree, he incredible is this field!" The tree and field are references to himself and his success. We find in this week's parasha that a tree can refer to a person - "for the man is a tree of the field". In other words, he reflects on his own greatness. When appreciating the ploughed field, as mention in Yirmiyahu (4), he is reflecting on the portion he believes he prepared from himself in the Next World. Consequently, this pasuk of tamim tihiye im elokecha, the verse he is violating, considers it as if such an individual is liable for his life.

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