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Rooted in Action (Avot 3:17)



1.     He used to say: one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few, so that when the wind comes, it uproots it and overturns it, as it is said, “He shall be like a bush in the desert, which does not sense the coming of good. It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness, in a barren land without inhabitant” (Jeremiah 17:6). 

2.     But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom, to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are few but roots are many, so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow upon it, they cannot move it out of its place, as it is said, “He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream. It does not sense the coming of heat, its leaves are ever fresh. It has no worry in a year of drought; it does not cease to yield fruit” (ibid, 17:8).


In Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s second statement in Pirkei Avot, he emphasizes that wisdom not eclipsed by an abundance of action is not sustainable. His language is strongly reminiscent of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa’s message in Avot 3:9: “anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom is enduring, but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom is not enduring.” In fact, Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran (Magen Avot) writes that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is only repackaging the same idea while providing a metaphor that will help the concept resonate more deeply. 


Metaphors, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson developed in their groundbreaking Metaphors We Live By, enable people to use familiar ideas and experiences to help understand abstract concepts. By connecting the abstract idea that wisdom requires deeds to the common imagery of a tree, Rabbi Elazar is making an important principle more palpable for his audience. By so doing, he is also teaching us how to best communicate ideas of ethics and spirituality in an effective way. Additionally, Rabbi Elazar, at least according to many manuscripts, includes a prooftext from Jeremiah to bolster his point. The wisdom statement of Rabbi Hanina is affixed by Rabbi Elazar to a metaphor to enhance understanding, as well as to a verse for its rootedness in Torah. 


Both the verses and the metaphor provide the opportunity for fuller analysis and insight. Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, for instance, sees within the metaphor of a tree the lesson to transform the physical in the spiritual:

Chassidic writings teach that the function of man is to transform the earthly world into a spiritual world…. The tree is symbolic of this function. It too takes the elements of the earth, water, and the oxygen of the air, and with the energy provided by sunlight miraculously synthesizes wood, leaves, and fruit. These provide both shade and food for all living things, as well as being a home for various creatures…. Just elements can be combined and transformed into fruit, so can all earthly objects be transformed into holiness.


The theme of stressing action over and above wisdom is one that was important to many late medieval commentaries who were critical of an overly rationalistic approach to Judaism. They saw within this Mishnah a critique of those who studied philosophy, or even learned Torah, but did not invest much into religious action. The behavioral acts associated with mitzvot are essential for spiritual success and Jewish continuity. Abarbanel adds that inherent in the philosophical enterprise is the acknowledgment that there will likely be an intellectual revolution that can uproot any established assumptions. Aristotle disproved Plato’s philosophy, and others have done the same to Aristotle. The experiential knowledge that emerges from the lived experience of performing mitzvot, writes Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka, provides answers to existential questions that no abstract system of philosophy could disprove.


Actions and habits support long-term commitment and success. Maharal’s philosophy in general, and his commentary on this Mishnah in particular, bears this out. He writes emphatically that Torah needs to be rooted in human behavior. Mitzvot are primarily embodied activities. Since humans are physical beings, the commandments need to address our lived experiences. Humans are compared to a tree; the trunk and roots represent the physical body, and the branches signify the intellect. The latter has potential to flourish and grow, assuming it is rooted in material reality. It is the mitzvot that build the resilience of the roots, which provides the ability for the branches to reach higher heights, but never at the expense of solidifying the body.


Physical actions are not just necessary for spiritual and intellectual success, they are also important for psychological flourishing. Physical exercise and pursuing active goals are key ingredients to mental health. One of the first interventions for combatting depression is called behavioral activation, which requires prioritizing being active. Additionally, oftentimes anxiety is exacerbated by being overly cerebral. Too much pontificating and hypothesizing, can yield undue worry. 


This psychological factor may be hinted at in the Mishnah, particularly through the choice of prooftexts used by Rabbi Elazar. The verses from Jeremiah elaborate on the vision of a successful tree planted by water, that “has no worry in a year of drought.” Sefat Emet wonders about the anthropopathism. Why are we attributing human feelings to a tree? Why would a tree be worried or not worried? Sefat Emet writes that even non-humans have a function or purpose, what Aristotle termed telos. When the object is fulfilling its functioning, it is “happy,” but when it may not, it is “worried” that it won’t. When a tree is flourishing, it is happy and confident. When it is in danger of withering, it is worried it won’t fulfill its purpose. 


The metaphoric message for us is that if we are physically and spiritually stagnant, purpose, meaning, and fulfillment will be elusive. By using our bodies to perform mitzvot, we are actively fulfilling our telos, and thereby have the potential to flourish psychologically, physically, and spiritually.  



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