Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion
“The abundance of beauty of every kind which we are given in this, our world, and the fact that – as far as we know – Man is the only creature that has been provided with the ability to enjoy beauty for itself, proves what value the Creator lays on this aesthetic sense for the spiritual-moral calling of Man. Indeed, this beauty of nature showered in every form all over the world, and the sense of enjoyment which Man derives from it, is one of the first means to protect Man from complete brutalization.
Joy in the beauties of Nature and the beauties of form, which God has lavished on especially on the plant-world, forms a bridge towards what is spiritually and morally beautiful. In surroundings where no consideration is given to harmony and beauty, Man too easily grows up wild and unruly. The feeling which gives a person joy in harmony and order is related to the feeling of order and harmony in the sphere of morality, so much so that evil and bad appear to us as Ra [from the root raua – to break into pieces], as something broken, the harmony disturbed, where one single thought no longer rules the whole.”
The Pure Sentiments of Nature
In an earlier column, we noted the beautiful words of Rav Kook (Eyn Aya, Berachot 57b) to explain the yishuv hada’at (tranquillity) which a person receives from sounds, sights and aromas.
“God created the soul of Man upright, happy in life, and enjoying tranquillity in its feelings,” writes Rav Kook, “and any time that a person directs his life to the life of Nature in general, he will find happiness and gladness of heart. Unfortunately, due to the belligerent nature of human society, Man has become distant from the pure sentiments of Nature, and his mind has also become clouded. Therefore, the attribute with the ability to restore Man to his natural consciousness is the quality of the common general tranquillity which a person finds in Nature, the kindness of Hashem which fills the entire universe: the sound of the song of the birds from among the branches which give forth song [see Psalm 104:12], the sight of the splendor of the Carmel and the Sharon with their beautiful flowers, the smell of the lilies and every delightful fruit which is in the Garden of Hashem, the Earth which He gave to Man. These are the creations which restore a person to Nature, after he has become removed from it by the culture and society which distanced him.”
A Taste of Paradise
This highly attuned sense of non-physical pleasures is ‘brought down to earth’ nicely by Rabbi N. Slifkin, in his recent work, “Nature’s Song.” In a piece that is reprinted on the entrance to the hothouse at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo (Gan HaTanachi), R. Slifkin notes the distinction between the physical senses of touch and taste and the “quasi-spiritual” senses of sight, sound and smell (pp. 75-6 of the book). He explains that because most of us live highly urban lifestyles, the only one of our five senses to which we usually give pleasure is our sense of taste when we sit down to enjoy a delicious meal. By contrast, when the Torah describes those senses that God enjoys, so to speak, we never find a description of Him touching or tasting – only “seeing,” “hearing” or “smelling.” For it is only those senses that verge on the spiritual that can be used with regard to God.
However, if we want to satisfy our senses of sight, sound and smell, we need to “visit places that show the very best that nature has to offer – gardens. There, we look at the beauty of the flowers and trees. We hear the song of birds and the buzzing of bees. And we smell the aroma of the flowers. Such pleasures, for those who are sensitive to them, far exceed the pleasure of a good meal… These quasi-spiritual pleasures hint at the pleasures of the Garden of Eden… [T]he scents, sights and sounds of nature provide a starting point for understanding how pleasure for the soul differs from pleasure for the body.”
Praise for an Idolater’s Beauty?!
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 20a) cites a surprising incident that occurred with the Tanna, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, in which he was walking upon the steps of the Temple Mount and he saw a certain idolatress who was exceedingly beautiful. Upon seeing her, he exclaimed: “How great are Your works, Hashem” (Tehillim 104:24)! Rav proceeds to explain that Rav was not praising the idolatress per se, but was simply giving praise to Hashem for the beauty He brought into being, as we learn in a beraita: “One who sees beautiful creatures says: Blessed are You… Who created such in His world.”
Prof. Nahum Rakover in his work “Eichut Haseviva” (Jewish Legal Heritage Society 1993, pp. 102-3) cites the following illuminating insight offered by Rabbi Yosef Balach, a renowned Mussar scholar, who served as Av Beit Din and Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, and who died in the year 1930.
“This Gemara about Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel seems perplexing” writes Rav Balach (Shiurei Torah, Bnei Brak, 5738, I:193). “How could it be that such a great person would take an interest and be so full of admiration for a heathen… How could she have made so big an impression on him?…The truth is that Chazal are teaching us, in this story, that great people utilize all their strengths, and are attentive and sensitive to everything, for it is not proper for them to reject their emotions. Their sense of beauty is also highly developed, prompting them to feel the fullest admiration and emotion when viewing a natural spectacle, when hearing a beautiful melody, and when seeing an extremely beautiful creation…
For the great man, with his magnitude of heart and his immense strengths, cannot fail to be impressed by wondrous acts of the creation… If he happens to see something, even if by chance, he is prepared to receive with his great soul the emotions that are aroused therein; his heart is not desensitized from feeling such beauty, and he also does not lose his course by so doing which only rises in holiness; rather by sensing everything with full force his great soul knows how to use this emption for the exalted purpose of acknowledging the Creator. Not only does this not injure him and bring him down from his high level, but on the contrary he elevates the emotion and becomes elevated with it to contemplate the power and greatness of Hashem and to proclaim How great are Your works, Hashem!”
Rav Kook’s Four-Fold Song (Orot HaKodesh II:444)
We conclude this series with further sentiments expressed by Rav Kook in his inimitable manner in his famous “Four-Fold Song” (Orot HaKodesh II:444):
“There are many levels of song.
Others sing the Song of the Nation. They leave the restricted circle of the individual soul… with sublime love, they cleave to Knesset Yisrael. They sing her songs, feel her pains, delight in her hopes, and contemplate her past and her future.
Others allow their souls to expand beyond the people of Israel. They sing the Song of Humanity, reveling in the grandeur of the humankind, the illustriousness of his divine image. They aspire towards humanity’s ultimate goal, and yearn for its sublime fulfillment. From this source of life they draw inspiration for their universal thoughts and analyses, aspirations and visions.
And some reach even higher in the expanse, until they unite with all of existence, with all creatures and all worlds. With all of them, they sing the Song of the Universe.”