Archive for category Ethics of Fathers

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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With all your Heart

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Yisro

It is said that the great sage Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once found himself profoundly depressed over the spiritual shortcomings of his students and his community.  As the High Holidays approached, Rabbi Yisroel left to search out the company of Jews more passionate about their own relationship with the Divine.

imgresTraveling from village to village, Rabbi Yisroel prayed with one congregation and then another until finally, in a small synagogue in an unremarkable town, he found himself surrounded by individuals who seemed to take their prayers as seriously as he did. Rabbi Yisroel positioned himself directly behind one parishioner who seemed to pray with extraordinary devotion.  Here, he thought, he would surely find his inspiration.

The High Holidays service began exactly as Rabbi Yisroel had hoped. The Jew in front of him swayed slowly as he prayed, the whispered words of the liturgy falling from his lips with a quiet intensity that made Rabbi Yisroel feel as if he were being drawn steadily upward on his neighbor’s coattails. When the man intoned, “I am mere dust and ashes before You,” Rabbi Yisroel experienced a profound sense of his own humility before G-d.

The time arrived for the reading of the Torah, and the gabbai of the congregation began distributing honors among the notables of the community. First he called up a Kohein, and then a Levi.  Had the gabbai known that the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter graced his shul, he would certainly have accorded him the prestigious third aliyah.  But Rabbi Yisroel had chosen to remain anonymous and thought nothing of it when no honor was bestowed upon him. He assumed that the recipient called up for the third Torah reading must be one of the synagogue’s most prominent members.

For the fourth honor, the gabbai called the name of Rabbi Yisroel’s neighbor, from whom the sage had drawn such inspiration.  Upon being called to the Torah, however, the man suddenly flew into a rage. “You called him third,” he cried, pointing to the previous honoree, “and you only called me fourth? Who is he that I should be second to him?”

Astonished and appalled, Rabbi Yisroel rushed forward. “My friend, I can’t believe my ears. Only a moment ago you were saying before the Almighty that you are only dust and ashes.”

The man turned to Rabbi Yisroel, still furious, and declared, “Before G-d I am dust and ashes; not before him!”

Even the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter had to learn an unpleasant lesson that year about jumping to superficial conclusions.  He returned to his community and reapplied himself to the business of spiritual growth.

TWO PATHS THAT ARE ONE

Rabbi Chanina used to say: If one is found pleasing by his fellows, then he is pleasing to the Almighty; but if one is not pleasing to his fellows, then he is not pleasing to the Almighty.

imgresIn this teaching (Pirkei Avos 3:13), Rabbi Chanina alludes to a basic principle of Torah observance:  The commandments articulated in the Torah comprise two types of obligations — those between man and G-d, and those between man and man.

Many people neglect the first category, believing that as long as one is “a good person,” his relationship with the Almighty can be more casual and subjectively defined. In practice, however, with no absolute authority to define what is good, each person will inevitably judge himself “good” in his own eyes.

Others neglect the second category, believing that if they are ardent in their relationship with G-d, then it is of no consequence how they relate to their fellows. It is this second type of fallacy that Rabbi Chanina comes to refute.

The tablets received by Moses at Sinai are often depicted as heart-shaped, suggesting a deeply symbolic lesson:  Just as our blood has to flow efficiently through both the right and the left chambers of the heart to maintain a healthy body, so too does a healthy soul depend upon an interdependence between the two categories of mitzvos.

THE SECRET OF THE TABLETS

Each of the two tablets contains five of the Ten Commandments. The first five are precepts between man and G-d; the second five are precepts between man and his fellow. And each pairing reflects the integral nature of the two categories:

I am the L-rd, your G-d — Do not commit murder
Have no other gods before Me — Do not commit adultery
Do not take G-d’s name in vain — Do not steal
Honor the Sabbath — Do not testify falsely
Honor your father and mother — Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor

The first commandment is I am the L-rd, your G-d; the sixth (which is the first on the second tablet’s group of five) is the prohibition against Murder. Only by acknowledging that there is a Creator who fashioned every human being in His image can one rationally explain why eating steak and swatting flies is any different from shedding human blood. Without such a distinction, we should all be either Vegans or serial killers.

The second commandment is the prohibition against Idolatry; the seventh is the prohibition against Adultery. The former is faithlessness in one’s relationship with the Almighty; the latter faithlessness in the sacred vow of marriage.

The third commandment is the prohibition against Taking G-d’s Name in Vain; the eighth is the prohibition against Stealing. The Almighty placed everything in this world for our use, conditional only upon recognizing that everything comes from Him. To misuse His name is to fail in that recognition, rendering all benefit from the material world the equivalent of theft.

The fourth pair of commandments includes the requirement to honor and keep the Sabbath, and the prohibition against Bearing False Witness. Since the Sabbath testifies to the creation of the world, one who violates it is in effect testifying falsely against the Creator.

imagesThe final pair includes Honoring Parents and the prohibition against Coveting, or seeking to acquire what belongs to one’s fellow through manipulation. Although the former appears to belong in the category between man and man, it teaches us to appreciate that our parents are the connection between us and our Creator. Just as parents withhold from their child that which they believe is not good for the child, similarly will G-d withhold from each of His children that which may not serve their spiritual best interests. One who internalizes this will never feel envy toward his neighbor.

The Torah commands us to serve the Almighty “with all your heart,” suggesting that our service of G-d is imperfect as long as our relationship with others is incomplete. Rabbi Chanina does not mean that we should curry favor with our neighbors through flattery or bribery. Rather, he comes to teach us that through genuine concern for our fellows we will transform ourselves into G-dly human beings.


Adapted from an article originally published at Aish.com

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Leadership is not (yet) dead

From Beyond Twelve Gates by Rabbi Ze’ev Smason:

 

Our persistent need to rank events and people has led to the proliferation of year-end ‘Best of the Year’ lists; Top 10 Sports Moments of the Year, Top 10 News Stories of the Year, Top 10 Gefilte Fish Recipes of the Year (well, maybe things haven’t gone that far …yet).  However, an intriguing year-end list, put forth by the  Times of Israel, was ‘ Gentiles of the Year 2012.’  One name relatively unknown on this list was Istvan Ujhelyi.  Unfamiliar with Mr. Ujhelyi?   His name is worth knowing.

 

After a far-right Hungarian politician called for Jews to be screened as potential security risks, Istvan Ujhelyi, the deputy speaker of Hungary’s parliament, led colleagues in wearing yellow stars as a sign of solidarity with the country’s Jewish community.  While presiding over a parliamentary session, Ujhelyi, bedecked in his own yellow star, said, ”One of our fellow deputies stepped over a line that I thought until now could not happen in the halls of the Hungarian national assembly.  As far as I know I do not have Jewish ancestry, but should (someone) uncover that I have such roots, I will be proud of them.”  Some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, including a third of the victims who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Hungary’s Jewish population is estimated at 100,000 today, and while physical attacks are rare, an elderly rabbi was insulted recently near his home and Jewish and Holocaust memorials have been vandalized.

 

Istvan Ujhelyi’s action and words brings to mind the teaching of Hillel (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6)  “…..and in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”  There are times when circumstances in life require that we go against the tide.  Even when no one else has the wisdom or courage to do the right thing, even when everyone else has become part of the faceless crowd, we still must rise to the occasion.

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Diminishing Returns — Pirkei Avos 4:12

Why do we think that adding a second spigot to the water urn will double our reservoir?

What our sages have to say on the matter.

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How to get rich

A wealthy matron asked Rabbi Yossi bar Chalafta: “What is the meaning of the verse, [God] grants wisdom to the wise (Daniel 2:21)? Isn’t this superfluous? Should it not rather state that God grants wisdom to the unwise and knowledge to those who lack understanding?”

Discover the wisdom of Pirkei Avos and the sages’ formula for wealth and prosperity.

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A Lesson in Leadership

In the year 245 BCE, Ptolemy II of Egypt summoned the sages of Israel and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek. Fearing that certain passages might be misinterpreted if translated literally, the sages opted to alter the language of the verses rather than open the door to heretical distortions.

One such verse was the Almighty’s famous contemplation, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), which the sages recast in the Greek equivalent of “I will make man in My image,” thereby precluding the false impression that God is something other than indivisible or shares His power.

But why did the Almighty Himself choose to record this verse in the plural and not the singular? The sages explain that the Torah comes to teach a critical lesson in leadership.

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Ethics of Fathers 4:9 — Overconfidence!

How a rush to judgment threatens civil society.

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Lag B’Omer — The Illumination of a Good Heart

A spellbinding analysis of this most mystical of holidays, according to the Chassidic classic B’nei Yissosschar.

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Honor and Disgrace — Ethics of Fathers 4:8

Sweat the small stuff — that’s where it all starts.

My latest Pirkei Avos column offers a practical approach to spiritual sensitivity.

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Degrees of Separation

Our commitment to the community must be our highest priority.

New column on Pirkei Avos.

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