May 26, 2024
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”רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶן דּוֹסָא אוֹמֵר …
כֹּל שֶׁיִּרְאַת חֶטְאוֹ קוֹדֶמֶת לְחָכְמָתוֹ, חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת. וְכֹל שֶׁחָכְמָתוֹ קוֹדֶמֶת לְיִרְאַת חֶטְאוֹ, אין חכמתו מתקיימת
כָּל שֶׁמַּעֲשָׂיו מְרֻבִּין מֵחָכְמָתוֹ, חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת. וְכָל שֶׁחָכְמָתוֹ מְרֻבָּה מִמַּעֲשָׂיו, אֵין חָכְמָתוֹ מִתְקַיֶּמֶת (אבות ג:ט):
רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר …
כָּל שֶׁחָכְמָתוֹ מְרֻבָּה מִמַּעֲשָׂיו, לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה?
לְאִילָן שֶׁעֲנָפָיו מְרֻבִּין וְשָׁרָשָׁיו מֻעָטִין, וְהָרוּחַ בָּאָה וְעוֹקַרְתּוֹ וְהוֹפַכְתּוֹ עַל פָּנָיו …
אֲבָל כָּל שֶׁמַּעֲשָׂיו מְרֻבִּין מֵחָכְמָתוֹ, לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה?
לְאִילָן שֶׁעֲנָפָיו מֻעָטִין וְשָׁרָשָׁיו מְרֻבִּין, שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ כָל הָרוּחוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם בָּאוֹת וְנוֹשְׁבוֹת בּוֹ אֵין מְזִיזִין אוֹתוֹ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ … (אבות ג:יז):“

 

More Action

Last week we saw how Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa and Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya highlight the importance of action in general and specifically as a complement to wisdom. The two emphasize not only the problem with having less action than wisdom, but also the need for more action than wisdom.

A situation where one performs less action than what their wisdom dictates is understandably problematic; we need to translate theoretical wisdom into practical action. But why should one have more action than wisdom?

The commentators offered two explanations: The Meiri understood the Tannaim to be teaching the importance of doing more than just what pure reason requires. The category of lifnim mishurat hadin (supererogatory) conduct is a great example of this idea.1 Halacha may require only a certain minimal level of action. Caring and passionate people, though, go beyond this letter of the law.

Avot D’Rebbe Natan seems to have understood the need for additional action differently because it links the requirement to the pasuk of “na’aseh v’nishma.”2 Proper commitment to avodat Hashem means fulfilling mitzvot even before we understand the rationale behind them; in this way, actions exceed wisdom.3

This explains why Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya quoted a pasuk that deals with bitachon (trust in Hashem) as the basis for this idea. Acting before understanding hinges on trusting that Hashem gives us Torah and mitzvot that are meaningful and worthwhile.

 

Sustaining Wisdom

The Tannaim see action exceeding wisdom as more than just an important ideal. They see it as a condition for sustaining wisdom. Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya emphasizes this point through his comparison of the relationship of wisdom to action to that of branches to roots.4 One would have thought that wisdom is the root from which action sprouts. Rebbe Elazar teaches us that ideally, wisdom should stem from action. Active performance of mitzvot and good deeds helps us develop a proper understanding of life and of the world.5 We should, therefore, ground our lives and perspectives in action.

Rabbeinu Yonah took this idea a step further in order to explain why wisdom’s sustainability hinges on greater action. Since wisdom stems from action, one who values wisdom will act beyond what their wisdom dictates with the aim of fostering additional wisdom. Not acting this way indicates a lack of appreciation for wisdom, and wisdom that is not properly appreciated is unsustainable.

 

A Healthy Balance

Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya’s illustrative comparison between man and tree helps us appreciate the major impact that balancing wisdom and action has on our spiritual fortitude. The identity and belief system of one whose actions exceed his wisdom are impenetrable — he is well-grounded, stable and protected from passing winds. One whose identity depends on his own wisdom, however, can be swayed by the “winds” of passing ideas and ideologies; he may find himself — to use Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya’s term —“flipped on his head.”

A person focused upon action has two feet on the ground. He has a strong foundation and is not susceptible to the blustery winds of changing times.

 

Wisdom’s Context

Over the past few weeks, we have studied Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa’s two statements about wisdom’s sustainability. Wisdom is of great value and worth pursuing, but its stability hinges on it being preceded by yirah (fear of G-d) and exceeded by ma’aseh (action). A yirah foundation gives the wisdom acquired afterwards true meaning, while excessive action provides wisdom with strong footing and fertile ground to grow from.

May we appreciate the importance of yirah and ma’aseh and use both to develop and sustain healthy and meaningful wisdom.


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.


1 The commentary of the Ra’avan to Avot gives this example.

2 Avot D’Rebbe Natan 32:1.

3 See the Tiferet Yisrael commentary, which explains Avot D’Rebbe Natan this way.

4 Many commentators see the later mishnah of Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya as merely reiterating the earlier statement of Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa. Both the Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah write (in reference to the statement of Rebbi Elazar) that they already explained this idea earlier (regarding the mishnah of Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa). Rav Ovadia mi’Bartenura declines to comment and instead relies on his commentary to the earlier mishnah. However, it seems that Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya returns to the earlier statement of Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa in order to add the pasuk as prooftext and the comparison as helpful illustration.

5 See the Malbim who learns from Shemot 24:7 that mitzvah fulfillment helps us get to a deeper appreciation of them. See also the Ohr Hachayim who learns this from Devarim 12:28.

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