To Stroll with a Scroll

It’s not often these teachings stump me completely. I’ve been trying to get into the habit of reading the teachings sooner than I must write my post, to allow for a deeper level of consideration on what they may mean, but this week’s mishneh still has me profoundly confounded. Why don’t you read it for yourself?

3.9 Rabbi Yaakov taught:

One who reviews his studies while strolling and interrupts his studies to remark, “What a beautiful tree,” or, “What a lovely field,” is considered as having committed a capital offense.

Again, there was a footnote: Literally, “guilty against his own soul.”

I believe I was so dumbstruck after the first reading I had to read it twice more to even be able to manage the words, “That’s absurd.” I particularly love strolling, and I think it’s a delight to remark upon the beauties of the world around me. There’s this one part of campus at Guilford Tech adorned by two trees that, right when winter turns to spring, are filled with the most glorious blossoms. For two or three days, the scene is breathtaking, and no matter how many times I have seen it, the sight always makes me stop in my tracks.

That can’t be a capital offense, could it? That doesn’t make me guilty against my own soul, would it? In fact, what does that even mean, to be guilty against my own soul?

What’s curious is that Judaism is a religion of blessings. There are no less than five different blessings to say before eating, and another set of blessings to say after eating bread. There are blessings for smelling fragrant spices, herbs or plants, and fruit or oils–and that’s four separate blessings, mind you, not one for all four. There are blessings to recite upon hearing thunder, upon seeing a rainbow, even upon seeing the ocean. There are also two blessings that seem to support distracted strolling: The first is recited upon seeing trees blossoming for the first time each year, and the second is said upon seeing trees or creatures of beauty.

Wait a second. Why are there blessings for what we shouldn’t be doing? If we’re to stop our strolls to say these blessings, then we are both commanded to interrupt our studies and instructed to ignore these moments of natural beauty?

My confusion is becoming more evident with every word.

After much thought this past week, I’ve settled upon three possible interpretations of what this potential paradox appears to be asserting. First, a matter of focus; second, a matter of rest; and third, a matter of modern insight. However, before I proceed, it’s important to define what being guilty to your own soul means.

Imagine a situation in which there is an authority and someone subservient to that authority. Suppose the former enacts a legislation requiring the latter to clap his hands every time he stands up. Suppose further that the punishment for ignoring this decree is immediate imprisonment. If the subservient party claps his hands upon rising, he has obeyed the higher authority and, more importantly, has not disobeyed the authority. If, on the other hand, the man does not clap upon rising, he has become guilty against this higher power and will be immediately imprisoned on account of it.

We can conclude that laws against theft, incest, and tax evasion are of this sort: Although immediate imprisonment may be unlikely, especially if there are no witnesses and little evidence, the crime committed had been against a higher authority because it was the higher authority who passed the laws being broken.

Let’s construct a different scenario to illustrate the crux of this distinction. Suppose now the higher authority has said that every person may choose whether or not to clap upon rising and that no punishment or reward will be given to anyone on account of their decision to clap or not. The subservient party then decrees to himself that it is his personal duty to clap upon rising. If he claps upon rising, he has done no wrong and may or may not decide to reward himself for his success in keeping to what he feels is his personal duty. If, however, he does not clap upon standing, he has neglected his own task, and although he may or may not decide to punish himself accordingly, no higher power will address the matter because he has only wronged himself. That is, by failing to conform to his own personal obligations, he has made himself guilty to his own soul.

This settled, we can begin to make sense of this teaching.

First, a matter of focus: If in taking this stroll to review our studies, our intent is to review our studies, then to allow ourselves to be distracted will impede our ability to study. Frequent interruptions will break our focus and work against retention, not to mention that multitasking is a medical myth: It may seem that we can do multiple tasks at once, but much like a computer is able to focus on only one process at a time, when we’re “multitasking” we’re merely changing our focus back and forth between multiple points of interest. This weakens our efficiency and ability in all areas–quite simply, because we cannot perform these processes as swiftly as a computer.

Second, a matter of rest: If while strolling, we merely remark upon but do not indulge the sights around us, then we have neglected to pay homage to God’s creations. The blessings I mentioned earlier were not meant to be passing remarks, “Oh, how lovely!” but to be full blessings spoken with heart and intent. As you have all heard, one should make time to “stop and smell the roses”–and isn’t that what this teaching is trying to tell us? Periods of prolonged activity decrease the skill with which we perform that activity, but moments of solace spent reveling in the experience and the beauty of nature can and often will revive our attentiveness and our spirit. To merely pass up these restorative opportunities truly does make you guilty against your own soul.

Third, a matter of modern insight: Would you believe that, although fatalities from distracted driving have been decreasing recently, the number of deaths credited to distracted walking has increased over four percent and injuries by nearly twenty percent? I was astounded by the numbers, purely stricken with surprise–but with the amount of technology that we cart around these days, from phones to tablets to MP3 players, all of them interactive and able to shield us from the world we live in, distracted walking has become a genuine safety concern. People preoccupied while walking move more slowly and are less aware of their surroundings–in fact, many have been caught on camera falling into fountains, onto subway train tracks, and even walking out in front of moving buses!

But, as always, the Rabbis had remarkable insight, and once again we can learn from these ancient words a lesson with a decidedly modern flair: If you’re going to be walking, and you allow yourself to be distracted without keeping trained upon your task, you’re guilty against your own soul–and you will pay the consequences.

Are all of these possibilities equally true? I like to think they are. In math, we abstract simple equations to make them more general, more applicable to multiple situations. To abstract a moral teaching such as this to make it applicable to more areas of our lives does not seem to give us more work, but rather alleviates the need to learn multiple lessons for every ounce of insight we can find from one.

God bless, and safe walking, too.

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