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.