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Who is honored…?

imagesI am honored to learn that I will be recognized at this year’s Block Yeshiva Scholarship Gala, acknowledging my 18 years of service to the school.  Mostly, it has been my privilege to be part of an institution that can justifiably claim so much success:  our students and alumni consistently strike a beautiful and delicate balance between Torah and secular culture, between the spiritual and the material worlds, and between meticulous observance of Torah law and development of moral character.  Perhaps our greatest shortcoming has been our limited success in highlighting all we have achieved.

To learn more about Block, take a look at our blog.

For gala reservations and ad journal tribute opportunities, click here.

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Searching for the Way out of Exile

imagesAt first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel.  But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread:  two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah.  Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity:  the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.

“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.

She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it.  I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.

It was the summer of 1984, and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law. Policemen on patrol wore flack jackets.  An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change.  Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs warned, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED.  But as I worked my way up Shankhill, I discovered even more disconcerting landmarks:  elementary school yards swathed in barbed-wire and churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire.

I stopped in at a corner pub and took a seat at the bar beside two locals.  Each was nursing a pint of Guinness.  Another glass, two-thirds full with boiled snails, rested between them.  The men took turns using a bent eight-penny nail to dig each snail out of its shell before popping the meat into their mouths.

Click here to read the whole essay.

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Purim and the Limits of Imagination

Enjoy this blast from the past.

lennonAccording to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.

One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.

The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.

Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.

Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner’s blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.

Click here to read the whole article.

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True Gratitude

Parshas Pekudei

The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).

This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people.  When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that  Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.

Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed:  first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra.  Did the bring enough or more than enough?  It cannot have been both.

imagesExplains the Ohr HaChaim:  Yes, the people had brought more than enough.  But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away.  Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.

Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation.  It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need.  However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled.  Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.

Really, it should be just the opposite.  We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security.  To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings.  And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.

One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.

imgresBut the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless.  When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off.  “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained.  “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.”  For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.

It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now.  It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.

Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul

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It’s not my job — or is it?

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Vayakhel

And Moshe said to B’nei Yisroel:  “See, Hashem has proclaimed by name Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Yehudah… to perform every craft of design” (Shemos 35:30-33).

RavIn the 1930s, Rav Elchonon Wasserman travelled to America to raise funds for his yeshiva in Baranovich.  Addressing an affluent congregation one Shabbos morning, Rav Elchonon asked the parishioners to consider giving a donation of $180, which could support a bochur in his yeshiva for an entire year.

The rabbi of the shul, worried that his congregants might resent being asked for so large a contribution, added that even a donation of one dollar would also be helpful.  Not surprisingly, Rav Elchonon received many one dollar donations and not many $180 donations.

Recognizing that he had undermined the rosh yeshiva’s appeal, the rabbi offered an apology for scuttling his efforts.  Rav Elchonon replied with the following moshel:

mishkanWhen Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint Betzalel as the chief architect of the mishkan, Moshe immediately went to the camp of Yehudah and began asking people if they knew Betzalel.  With over 74,000 adult males in the tribe, it took a while before Moshe found someone who could direct him to Betzalel.

Said Rav Elchonon:  “Did Moshe become angry with the people who did not know Betzalel?  Of course not.  If they did not know Betzalel, then Moshe would have to keep searching for someone who did.

“Supporting a Torah institution is exactly the same,” continued Rav Elchonon.  “Whatever money Hashem intends to provide for Torah education will come through the means that Hashem has prepared.  The only question is who will have the merit to participate in the support of Torah.  If one person does not have the merit to be such a participant, there is no reason to become angry with him.  Someone else who values the importance of educating students in the ways of Torah will step forward to act as Hashem’s agent, and that person will be rewarded in the next world in proportion to his generosity.”

And so we have to ask ourselves every moment of every day:  are we eager to accept the job as Hashem’s agents to bring about the fulfillment of His will, or are we all too eager to leave that job to others?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

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Double Down for Spiritual Success

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

 

From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

imgresIt’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.

The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.

My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.

But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.

“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”

Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.

Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”

imagesI tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)

Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?

Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.

In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.

Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”

(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)

In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.

I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.

And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.

imagesIn hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”

 

In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.

The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?

Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.

Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.

Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?

 

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:

A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).

imagesExplains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.

We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.

When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”

In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along:  it’s worth it.

And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.

And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.

On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!

But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.

Now there’s a story I can tell his children.

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A Matter of Respect

In memory of my father, Yochanon ben Yaakov, whose neshoma left this world on Rosh Chodesh Adar.  Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 June 2001.

imagesI was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle-aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

“Take off your hat,” my father said.

The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Read the whole article here.

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The Heart of the World

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Terumah

And you shall make Me a dwelling (mikdash), and I will dwell (v’shochanti) among them (Sh’mos 25:8).

imagesThe Mishkan, or Tabernacle, was much more than a place of worship for the Jews as they traveled through the desert.  It was the prototype of the Beis HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem and, even more, a microcosm of the entire universe.  As such, the details of its construction offer a look behind to curtain of nature into the very design of Creation.

However, first we have to ask ourselves a question:  why does the Almighty command the construction of a mikdash, which lay four hundred eighty years in the future, rather than a mishkan, which is what the Jewish people were about to build.

The word mishkan literally means “that which creates a dwelling.”  In the desert, with no land, no permanence, and no boundaries, the tabernacle provided the focal point around which the Jewish nation could coalesce.  Of course, the spirit of HaShem is everywhere.  But the physical House of G-d placed in the midst of the people would bind them together in a way that their abstract identity as a holy people could not.  Indeed, a careful reading of the verse reveals HaShem’s true intention.  Build Me a tabernacle, commanded the Almighty, and I will dwell not in it but in and among them, the people.

Consequently, we understand that the Mishkan was never intended to be permanent.  Its purpose was to sustain the people until they could enter the land.  At that point, they would no longer require a mishkan, for the land itself would bind them together as a nation.  From then on they would require a mikdash — literally, that which creates sanctity.  Once in the land, a House of G-d would serve to remind the people of their divine mission and inspire them to strive for ever higher levels of spiritual achievement.

To that end, the people would gather three times a year for the pilgrim festivals — Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos.  And herein lies the secret of the Mikdash, as explained by the Chassidic classic Arvei Nachal.

imagesJust as our world exists within three physical dimensions, similarly was it created along three spiritual axes:  space, time, and life.  Of these three, the human body presents the most familiar model for understanding the spiritual pattern of the universe.

Within the body, the heart pumps blood throughout the system.  Through arteries and capillaries, the blood reaches every corner of the body, carrying with it oxygenated blood that literally breathes life into every cell.  Returning to the heart, the blood is pumped through the lungs to become oxygenated once again, so that the body’s internal cycle of life can continue.  This is the essential structure of life.

The same pattern manifests itself in the nature of time.  According to the kabbalists, time is not linear but cyclical.  In the course of each year, every soul visits every day and every moment in the 365 days that describe the solar year.  Just as the flow of blood deposits life-giving oxygen to the body’s cells, similarly does each soul deposit kedusha, sanctity, to the individual moments that together form the body of time.  And just as the body’s cycle begins and ends with the heart, similarly does the annual cycle begin and end with Yom Kippur — the holiest day, and the “heart” of the year.  The extent to which the Jew renews his relationship with the Almighty on Yom Kippur will affect not only his own fortunes for the coming year, but the fortunes of all mankind.  Symbiotically, our involvement in Torah and mitzvos draws the innate kedusha from the temporal plasma of the universe and allows us to return to the next Yom Kippur on a spiritual level higher than we were on the year before.

imagesFinally we come to physical space.  Once established in the land, the Jewish people  spread out to settle their country, striving to strike the perfect balance between material prosperity and spiritual purpose.  Their involvement in Torah and mitzvos throughout every corner of the Land of Israel would draw out the intrinsic spiritual essence of the land, enabling them to achieve greater levels in divine service as they prepared for each successive festival, when they would come together at the Beis HaMikdash — the heart of the world.  Inspired and elevated by each festival, the Jews would return to their homes, elevated in their spirituality so that they could elevate the land on which they toiled, thus creating a virtuous cycle that brought them ever closer and closer to their Creator.

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the great sage Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai decreed that every shul, every place of Jewish prayer, should be treated as a mikdash ma’at, and Temple in miniature.  Every time the Jewish community comes together to pray, on weekdays and on Shabbos, on festivals and on the High Holy Days, we have the opportunity to renew the cycle of spiritual elevation.  Prayer is not for G-d; it is for us.  It is not a burden; it is a privilege and an opportunity.  It is not an inconvenience; it is as fundamental to our existence as our life’s blood, as our heart, and as our soul.

 

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The Slow Road to Sanctity

Parshas Mishpatim

You shall not ascend my altar by steps, so that you will not reveal your nakedness upon it.  And these are the statutes that you [Moses] shall place before them [the Jewish people]

Exodus 20:23-21:1

During the early days of the Second Temple era, the sages divided the Torah into portions, or parshios, to be read on successive Sabbaths.  The juxtaposition of any two of these parshios always alludes to some principle in Jewish thought.  In the case of this week’s Torah portion, however, the connection with the end of last week’s parsha seems particularly elusive.

imagesAfter the drama of the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, the narrative switches to a rather dry and technical description of the altar in the Tabernacle.  Not by stairs should the kohain go up, lest the gaping of his robes expose his private regions to the stones upon which he walks; rather, he should ascend by a ramp, so that his shorter, more even steps will not result in any impropriety.

Immediately afterward, the Torah introduces the mishpatim, the statutes that govern civil law by establishing the legal parameters of business dealings, private property, loans, and damages.  Superficially, no two subjects within Torah could be more distant from one another.

imagesThe revered Chassidic Master, Reb Elimelech of Lizensk, offers a tantalizing explanation.  As we go through life, we should see ourselves as kohanim, the priests of the Almighty, engaged in a perpetual quest to ascend spiritually, approaching ever nearer to a more perfect service upon the conceptual altar of the Creator.  Every attainment of a new spiritual level is called by the kabbalists a madrega — a “step” onward and upward.  The Jew is not meant to remain static, but to pursue ever more challenging goals in pursuit of spiritual perfection.

The danger, however, is that we may try to take too much upon ourselves, that we attempt to move forward by unrealistic leaps, that we may seek inspiration in the mystical and ethereal at the expense of more fundamental forms of heavenly service.  By reaching for the stars, we may find ourselves without firm footing beneath us, leaving ourselves vulnerable to the indictments of the divine attribute of Justice.  By artificially propelling ourselves to a level that we cannot realistically sustain, we may cause ourselves to be judged with a strictness that is beyond our capacity to endure.

The ramp up to the altar, therefore, serves as a symbol of the measured, determined consistency with which we should approach our commitment to spiritual growth.  HaShem may bless us at times with great leaps forward and moments of dazzling inspiration, but spiritual development is often like physical development — painfully slow and paradoxically mundane.

This, teaches Reb Elimelech, is the connection between the details of the altar and the words that introduce this week’s portion, “And these are the statutes…”  If we look for spiritual excitement only in arcane mysteries and secrets, we will inevitably miss the most essential opportunities for spiritual growth that our daily routine provides.  The concern for others, for their money and their time and their property, the respect for boundaries both personal and legal — these are the sensitivities that most effectively and meaningfully transform us into spiritual beings.  If we think we can overlook them in our quest for personal revelation and divine intimacy, we will have no foundation upon which to stand.  If we carefully cultivate them, we will awaken within ourselves the spiritual vision that will enable us to recognize the presence of the Almighty in every aspect of our lives.

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Tu B’Shevat: The Roots of Wisdom

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

From Celestial Navigation, a publication of Block Yeshiva

images[Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say:  Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds – to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are many and whose roots are few; then the wind will come and uproot it and turn it over. As it is said: “And he will be like a lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see when good comes. It will dwell on parched soil in the desert, on a salted land, uninhabited” (Yirmyahu 17:6). But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom — to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many; even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they will not move it from its place. As it is said: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the water spreading its roots toward the stream, and it will not notice when heat comes. Its leaves will be fresh, in a year of drought it will not worry, and it shall not cease yielding fruit” (ibid., 17:8).

Pirkei Avos 3:22

On the surface, Rabbi Elazar’s allegory appears easy to understand.  Scholarship alone is not enough; only when wisdom influences action and produces virtue will it endure.

On closer examination, however, the image of a tree raises many questions.  If wisdom is the source of action, why does Rabbi Elazar not compare wisdom to the roots and good deeds to the branches?  Just as roots draw sustenance from the earth to nourish the tree, similarly the roots in the allegory should represent the wisdom that fosters action.

Moreover, granted that wisdom is not enough, and that without good deeds a person is like a tree without adequate support, why describe a tree with few branches in the second part of the allegory?  If a person has many good deeds, why do the “branches” of his wisdom still have to be “few”?

And what is the point of mentioning the wind at all?  Would it not have been simpler to describe a tree so unstable that it is in danger of toppling under its own weight, regardless of external forces?

Finally, why does Rabbi Elazar prove his lesson with verses describing land that is either parched or abundantly watered?  Since the tree has no control over its environment, how are these verses relevant to his illustration?

THE ROAD OF GOOD INTENTIONS

Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes that when he was a boy, a visiting rabbi asked him the following question:  Since the Torah equates thought with action, then thinking of a question should be the same as actually speaking it.  “If so,” concluded the rabbi, “you should be able to answer the question I am thinking at this moment.”

The young Abraham Twersky offered the only reply that seemed to make sense:  “I am thinking of the answer,” he said.

The Torah’s equation of thought and deed informs us that thoughts are the first step toward actions and that actions are imperfect without sincere intent.  Nevertheless, thoughts alone are not enough: although wisdom is indisputably the source of action, it is action that secures and preserves our wisdom.  In the famous words of the Sefer HaChinuch, “man is drawn according to his deeds; his heart and all his thoughts follow inevitably after his actions, whether for good or for bad.”[1]

Unless properly channeled, wisdom comes to nothing; even worse, it may become twisted and corrupted through rationalization.˜

imagesUnderstood this way, actions are indeed the roots that support wisdom and enable it to endure, whereas scholarship that is not proportional to the measure of good deeds creates moral and spiritual instability.  Esoteric scholarship that is not firmly grounded in practical wisdom and disciplined behavior becomes first a distraction and ultimately a danger.  One who dabbles excessively in theoretical studies with little relevance to everyday life can easily become so lost in his musings that he neglects the mundane but essential responsibilities of worldly existence.

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

Whether or not we like it, as human beings we are creatures of habit.  This can work against us:  we easily fall into routine, often fail to give our activities the full attention they require, and frequently resist thinking outside the box.  But routine can work in our favor as well.  Just as bad habits are broken only with difficulty, good habits propel us in the right direction even when our minds are elsewhere.

Why do star basketball players invest hours a day shooting free throws, and why do actors rehearse their lines again and again, long after they have learned them by heart?  Because they understand that the more a person practices the more he implants natural actions and reactions into his subconscious, until they become woven into the fiber of his being.  The routine of repetition leaves an imprint upon his behavior that will govern his actions for the rest of his life.

Similarly, the more good deeds we perform, the more we inculcate good behavior into our psyche, and the greater the likelihood that we will continue to conduct ourselves in the same manner.  When the winds of temptation, of impulsivity, of self-interest, and of self-indulgence blow against us, the scholar will easily buckle before them unless he has trained himself in the performance of good deeds proportional to his scholarship.

THE WATERS OF VIRTUE

Why does one tree develop a complex root system when another becomes overgrown with branches?  A tree that is planted near water easily stretches out its roots to absorb the ready supply of life-giving water that surrounds it.  In contrast, a tree planted in parched soil sends its branches in all direction as it attempts to absorb moisture from the atmosphere.  Its search for sustenance creates its instability.

Unlike trees, which have no control over where they take root, human beings can determine their own environment.  If one chooses to live among people unconcerned with the goodness of their deeds, then he will become like a “lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see good when it comes.”  Without support from a community committed to virtuous conduct, even if one studies Torah and increases his wisdom, his wisdom will not endure, for it will remain disconnected from the actions necessary to preserve and protect it.

However, if he “plants” himself in a community devoted to applying the wisdom of Torah to concrete actions, then he will flourish, without fear of depletion, and will always enjoy the spiritual fruits of his labors.

According to Maharal, this equation is implicit in the Torah’s comment that man is a tree of the field (Devarim 20:19).[2]  We are in this world to grow, to stretch forth our branches, to reach for the heavens but remain firmly planted on the earth, to sustain the world with the fruit of our efforts by striving to fulfill the unique potential that resides in every one of us.  When our intellect guides our actions according to the laws and the values of the Torah, then our branches become an extension of our roots, and we find ourselves securely fastened to both this world and the World to Come.

imagesThe insights of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah offer a deeper understanding into the essence of Tu B’Shevat, when we celebrate the New Year of the trees.  Just as Rosh Hashanah reminds us that the whole world was created for man, Tu B’Shevat reminds us of man’s obligations to the world in which he lives.  The resources upon which we depend similarly depend on us, and the fruits of the natural world that sustain us will be sustained only when the fruits of our labors are so directed that they draw Hashem’s blessings back down from the heavens and replenish the bounty of the earth.

And so Hashem took Adam and showed him the trees of the Gan Eden, saying, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are!  Now all that I created is for you.  Take care that you do not destroy My world, for it there is no one to repair it after you.”[3]


[1] Parshas Bo, mitzvah 16

[2] Derech HaChaim, ad loc.

[3] Koheles Rabbah 7:13

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