By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
From Celestial Navigation, a publication of Block Yeshiva
[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.”
Unless properly channeled, wisdom comes to nothing; even worse, it may become twisted and corrupted through rationalization.
Understood 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). 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.
The 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.”
 Parshas Bo, mitzvah 16
 Derech HaChaim, ad loc.
 Koheles Rabbah 7:13