Environmental psychologists study the interplay between people and their surroundings. One interesting question that they explore is how the environmental context impacts a person’s ability to learn. For instance, do people learn better while learning indoors or outdoors? In an urban setting or perhaps in a natural context? In her book The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, Annie Murphy Paul reviews the literature on the impact of nature on our ability to think effectively. In sum, the research indicates that in contrast to being inside or amongst tall buildings, spending time in nature helps us maintain focus, improve our working memory, increase perceptual fluency, relieve stress, and decrease negative ruminative thoughts (see pp. 95-102 of the book for an in-depth analysis).
From a quick read, Avot 3:7, seems to be dissuading us from learning outdoors, and even more, may even be read as belittling the importance of the natural world. The mishna in the name of Rabbi Yaakov, although some have a version with Rabbi Shimon as the author, says:
If one is studying while walking on the road and interrupts his study [umafsik mimishnato] and says, “How fine is this tree!” [or] “How fine is this newly ploughed field!” Scripture accounts it to him as if he were mortally guilty [mitchayev benafsho].
Even if we assume that “mortally guilty” is an exaggerated phrase, not to be taken literally but to express the seriousness of this violation, why exactly is this such a dire transgression? There are a range of approaches in the commentaries that vary in the extent they view nature as playing a problematic role in this transgression (for a further review, see Benstein, 2001).
While nobody would suggest that G-d’s natural world should be viewed as inherently problematic, some commentaries, like Meiri and Abarbanel, equate the appreciation of nature in this mishna as being “vanity,” “idle chatter,” and “useless.”
Most commentaries, however, take a more balanced approach. Noting that appreciating G-d’s handiwork in the natural world has inherent, religious value, the issue at hand is one of priorities. For instance, Bartenura writes that even if this pause leads a person to make a blessing on the beautiful tree (“Blessed is He, that it is like this in His world”), “it as if he was liable for his life, because he interrupted his study.” As Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka explains, “There is profound significance in everything, but not everything is the same. There is a scale of values; there are priorities and levels of importance.” While appreciating nature has religious and spiritual valence, it is not as important as learning Torah. To interrupt learning G-d’s Torah to reflect on G-d’s nature is an inversion and distortions of priorities.
Whether nature is “vanity” or just lower on the values hierarchy than Torah study, both of these approaches seem to agree that nature disrupts the learning process, and presumably, if possible, learning should be done inside, with minimal distractions from the natural world.
However, there is a third possibility that would align better with the research findings cited above. As a starting point, we should ask: Why is it that the mishna speaks of someone walking on the road and studying? If the point is not to get distracted while learning, the setting should have been inside, perhaps in the beit midrash. Moreover, why exactly is this person on the road in the first place? Is his goal to learn or is he just trying to get somewhere?
Meiri suggests that the person is on the road because he is on the way to perform some non-learning-related task. He chose to learn, despite his ephemeral physical and mental state, fulfilling the commandment of “Recite them when you stay at home and when you are on the road” (Devarim 6:7). The same message to not get distracted would obviously apply when the person is learning in a more fixed and formal setting, yet the mishna is teaching us a novelty – that he must stay focused on his learning even when the setting is transient.
Rabbi Isaac of Toledo disagrees. The reason this person was on the way, he argues, was not to get somewhere else, but in order to learn. He is specifically on the road so that he can focus better and think more deeply. In ancient times, it was common for philosophers to purposefully walk outside while they learned. In fact, Aristotle’s school was named Peripatetic, which means “walking,” because Aristotle would often walk outside while lecturing. There are numerous stories in the Talmud where rabbis are described as “walking on the way,” and while undoubtedly some of the instances reflect a desire to traverse from one place to another, it is possible that sometimes the rabbis were walking outdoors as part of the learning process (see Heszer, 2011, pp. 215-221; 2017, pp. 26-33).
If this is the case, the message of the mishna shifts substantially. It is actually beneficial and encouraged to learn while walking amidst nature, perhaps for all the reasons alluded to in the research above. However, we still need to be cautious that we don’t get distracted by nature to the point that it interferes with and interrupts our learning.
There is one more creative reading of the mishna that challenges the negative connotation of the first explanation and better aligns with the message of the educational benefits of learning in nature. The problem is not of interruption, but of bifurcation. When a person thinks that reflecting on G-d’s nature is a distraction from learning G-d’s Torah, that is a failure of perspective (Sichat Avot in the name of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook). As Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm writes:
A person who believes that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the spiritual world and the physical world such that the study of science or appreciation of the natural order is a hefsek, an interruption of one’s engagement with Torah and the Divine, then one is mitchayev benafsho, culpable, having relegated G-d only to Revelation and eliminated Him from Creation.
Applying this idea to the realm of learning, it would turn out that being amidst nature can, in fact, enhance our learning of Torah. Everyone would agree that we should work to minimize our distractions and increase our focus while studying. For some, that may entail staying indoors and shuttering oneself off from the outside. However, for others, studying while walking and appreciating G-d’s natural world can actually enrich the learning experience. It is through the unification of Creation and Revelation that our understanding of G-d, His work, and His world is enhanced.