Oct 25, 2006
One of the most remarkable places I’ve ever visited is the Iguazu falls on the Argentinian – Brazilian border. Before the plane prepares to land on the small clear stretch of land in this sub-tropical rainforest it flies over a breathtaking scene – a gigantic crescent of between 160 and 260 waterfalls (depending on the river level) 2,700 metres long and 80 metres high.
As you approach the falls on foot, one of the first things that strikes you (aside from the thunderous noise, heat and humidity) is the range of vegetation, and how foreign it looks. In fact there are more then 20,000 species of plants in the Iguazu region, approximately 8,000 of them found only in this one region. The behaviour of the animals near the falls is also remarkable. For example swifts spiral in the air hunting for insects by day until just before sunset when they gather in large numbers, their aeronautic skill and precision clearly identifiable as they dive through the curtain of falling water to roost on the rocks immediately behind.
There are approximately 1,413,000 known species in the world: of which 750,000 are insects and only 4,000 mammals. Over 100,000 of these insects are ants, bees and wasps. To put this in perspective, ant-life is responsible for 10% of the total animal biomass1 worldwide, which dwarfs the humans, putting us into a minority category.
Why is there such a diversity of life? What purpose can it have? One answer could be the careful balance of the ecosystem. The removal or introduction of even one species could have knock-on effect, potentially leading to the collapse of the entire system. This idea reflects Rabbinic teachings that a person’s actions have a spiritual effect not only on theindividual but also on the world at large. Torah sources add another perspective. The Talmud2 tells us that not even one thing was created needlessly and gives examples of different animals which provide the source for medicinal cures.
In discussing how to fulfill the commandment to love God3,Maimonides offers what seem to be conflicting suggestions. On the one hand he states that this is achieved through the study of Torah.4 On the other hand however, he writes elsewhere that contemplating the awe-inspiring wonders of the natural world leads one to love God.5 These two statements appear to be contradictory; is the pathway to loving God through the physical or through the spiritual? The deeper Torah sources6 tell us that there is no contradiction, because the Torah is the blueprint – the Architect’s Plan – for the world; and as such, nature and the world around us are actually physical manifestations of the Torah.
There is however a crucial difference between using nature and using Torah as pathways to discovering God. A person could explore the natural world and discover the Divine7, but equally they could reach the wrong conclusions. Two scientists can look through the lens of the same microscope but only one will see God’s footprints. We are warned in several places of the danger of the fascination with nature, of seeing it as having created itself.8 In fact the most ardent atheists are often those who specialise in the study of the natural world. Torah study however, is a reliable path to discovering (and coming to love) God. The complexity, the depth, the beauty is such that true study of Torah can lead a person in one direction only.
That said, we do have an obligation to thank God for the beauty He has placed in the world. The Sages instituted a number of blessings to be recited upon viewing natural wonders. For instance upon seeing such sights as majestic mountains, deserts and oceans, we recite the blessing: “Blessed are You God... who makes the work of creation.” God has made a truly spectacular world for us and that is certainly something we should appreciate.
Of course, to simply go to an area of natural beauty likeIguazu, look at the falls, foliage and fauna and declare “Ah! The wonder of creation!” is just the beginning. The real trick is to stop, look and listen. When we discover how a habitat or microclimate functions, investigate the millions of components that make up the organisms that live there, see how they interact, explore the complexity of intra and inter species communication, and consider the diversity and scope of animal behaviour we begin to better understand the nature of the world we live in. Then we can gain a real appreciation of the wonder of creation.
1 The total weight of a particular group of organisms.
2 Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 77b
3 Deuteronomy 6:5
4 Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandment 3
5 Maimonides, Hilchot Yisodei Hatorah 2:2
6 Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 1:1
7 E.g. Psalms 19, Psalms 104. It is interesting to note that the second half of psalm 19 extols the virtues of God’s commandments, and the first half shows us how we can experience God’s glory through nature.
8 E.g. Deuteronomy 4:19
This article was first published in 60 Days for 60 Years.

TAGS for this article: Nature | Creation | Blessings | Appreciation