"Nu, So What Did You Think Of My Alps?"
As I mentioned, I'm currently in the Italian Alps for a few days, giving some lectures, and today, I went horseback riding. It is bitterly cold, and I have a bitter cold, but I did not want to miss the opportunity. Now, riding a horse is not one of my skills (I’ve spent more time riding elephants), and the horse that I was given was a huge and feisty stallion who seemed as though he was auditioning for Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan; I was the only person in my group who was given a switch in order to impose discipline if necessary. However, he didn’t throw me off and he was obedient, at least for most of time. We made our way through the tiny, narrow streets of a rustic village, then up the hills through snow-encrusted countryside, with the gigantic white Alps looming around us. It was incredible.
The experience reminded me of something that I wrote about fifteen years ago, back when I was Nosson Slifkin. At the time, I was grappling with two stories which appeared contradictory. The first concerned the late Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Yehudah Zev Segal (whose daughter was my elementary school teacher, so I guess that makes me an indirect talmid of his!). The story is told that Rav Segal was once traveling in Manhattan, and his companions suggested that they take a detour in order to see the famous Empire State Building.
“Only,” he replied, “if you can assure me that when I get up to Heaven, God will ask me if I saw the Empire State Building.”
The second story concerns Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who once went out of his way to see the Alps. When asked why, Rav Hirsch replied, “Because, when I get up to Heaven, I want to have an answer when God says to me, ‘Nu, Shimshon, what did you think of My Alps?’ ”
Fifteen years ago, these stories presented a contradiction that bothered me. In classical yeshivah fashion, I reasoned that the contradiction could be resolved. The Empire State Building is a man-made creation, and thus there is no reason to admire it. The Alps, on the other hand, are God’s own handiwork. Thus, there is no difference between Rav Segal and Rav Hirsch.
Fifteen years later, I’m not dismissing the possibility that this resolution is valid, but I am more open to acknowledging the likelihood that the stories reflect a fundamental difference between these two great Torah scholars. I can think of two ways in which to explain the nature of this difference.
One possibility is that these stories reflect two different approaches within Judaism. Rav Segal was of a particular ultra-Orthodox ideology in which Torah—the pursuit of God’s wisdom and commands—is of paramount interest, to the point where it is virtually of exclusive interest. Neglecting the pursuit of Torah and mitzvos, even for a short time, merely to appreciate a wondrous sight, would be inexcusable. Rav Hirsch, on the other hand, was of the Torah im derech eretz school of thought, in which a Jew’s life is enriched by appreciating the wonders of the world—be they God’s creations, or the creations of man, with his ingenious application of his God-given brain.
Another possibility (perhaps related to the previous one) is that these stories reflect the different origins of Rav Segal and Rav Hirsch. There’s a hilarious satirical news story about a person in New York for whom all therapy had failed to cure his chronic miserable attitude, and he was about to undergo a lobotomy, when at the last moment the surgeon realized that there was nothing clinically wrong with the person; he was, in fact, from Manchester. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I can see why it might have caused Rav Segal to have little interest in sightseeing. A miserable, grey, industrial and very provincial town, Manchester tends to produce cynical people who have little interest in the wider world. Rav Hirsch, on the other hand, was from a very different culture.
So, there are three possible explanations for the differing attitudes of Rav Segal and Rav Hirsch. I’ll have to contemplate the matter further before deciding what my attitude should be with regard to man-made wonders. But meanwhile, I’m glad that I braved the cold and my cold to ride through the mountains. When God asks me what I thought of His alps, I’m going to tell Him that they are terrific.
Horses are pretty awesome, too.