The Nature of Things – Parshat Shoftim 5772

One of my favorite moments last year was visiting Natural Bridge Caverns with the sixth graders on their Texas trip.  As we climbed deeper into the caverns, the scenery became more and more beautiful.  We saw stalagmites and stalactites, drapes of deposits that looked like an intricately iced cake, and rock formations that looked like they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book.  In the midst of all of this beauty, we paused and said the brachah “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheniu melech haOlam, Oseh Ma’aseh Bereshit.”  Blessed are You, Adonai our God, king of the universe who does acts of creation.  We said these words to remind ourselves that this beauty was not made by our own hands, but by God, the master creator of the waters that carved the caverns that formed this magnificent space.
It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of nature, whether it’s a rainbow, a lightening show, the first blossom on a tree, or the first fruit of the year.  If we are lucky, we find a second or two to admire the moment, but we often neglect to stop at all, let alone say the blessing to thank God for the world that we live in. 
Our parshah this week, parshat Shoftim, reminds us to stop and smell the roses or, more accurately, remember that what we see in our world and how we react to it expresses how we view ourselves and God.  While teaching about how we treat one another with respect and justice, the Torah turns to this law in chapter 16, verse 21 of the book of D’varim.  “You shall not plant for you an Asherah or tree of any kind near any altar for God you will make.”  OK, so we know that we can’t have a tree next to the bimah, but why?  The later commentaries go on to explain that placing the tree next to the bimah or near the Ark might lead an observer to think that we are worshipping the tree and not the tree’s creator. 
The Mei HaShiloach, a 19th century commentator, teaches that God is the creator of the natural world, but nature itself is not divine.  In other words, we may admire nature, but we are not to worship it.  Without a doubt, flora plays a role in our tradition; from Avraham planting trees near places he worshiped God to decorative flowers in the sanctuary on special occasions.  But to make nature the focus is to deify it, which is not a part of Judaism.
The text reminds us that though a walk in nature can be mind-clearing and refreshing, if we aren’t aware of the bigger picture, the master plan of creation and the giant world around us, we’re missing the point.  If we focus only on what the beauty itself, then we miss the opportunity to engage together in discussions of Torah and the greater good of our world. 
THIS TOO IS TORAH:  Have you ever visited a Biblical garden? These are cultivated collections of plants that are named in the Bible.  There are several in Israel and in the United States. What would you plant in your Biblical garden?
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