Ethics – Now & Then 51 – Avot 3:22

Avot 3:22  He used to say: Any man whose wisdom exceeds his deeds,
                  to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many
                  but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and plucks it up
                  and overturns it on its face – as it is said: ” And he shall be
                  like a juniper tree in the desert, and he shall not see good
                  come; but he shall dwell in the parched places in the wilderness,
                  a salt and uninhabited land.” [1] But anyone whose deeds
                  exceed his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree whose
                 branches are few but whose roots are many, so that even if all
                 the winds in the world come and blow on it, they cannot budge
                 it from its place – as it is said: “And he shall be as a tree that
                 is planted by water and by the streams it spreads out its roots;
                 then it shall not perceive any heat when it comes, and its foliage
                 shall be verdant; nor shall it be troubled in the year of drought,
                 nor cease from bearing fruit.” [2]

He used to say: Any man whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and plucks it up and overturns it on its face – as it is said: ” And he shall be like a juniper tree in the desert, and he shall not see good come; but he shall dwell in the parched places in the wilderness, a salt and uninhabited land”…

Instances can be found in Scripture where comparison are made between men and trees. Rabbi Ben Dosa uses the analogy to underscore the same thought he expressed earlier in 3:12. Here, he compares a man’s wisdom to the branches and foliage of a tree and his deeds to the roots. Botanical science tells us that a tree draws nourishment primarily through its roots. Through a spreading network of underground pipes, as it were, the necessary water and minerals are drawn from the soil to feed the tree. Similarly, in a spiritual sense, we may consider the source of man nourishment. What supplies the necessary “water and minerals” that are needed to keep his soul fed and growing?

Ben Dosa offers that these primarily are absorbed through the deeds he performs rather than the knowledge he accumulates. Rabbi Irving Bunim comments in agreement, “Academic study alone, theoretical contemplation alone, exercise of the reason alone, cannot basically affect the all-important functioning, acting part of the character.” [3] Rather, when one’s understanding and good intent are employed to perform an action that reflects the will and character of God – whether it be a simple gesture or a great deed of kindness – the action will nourish the person’s soul and have an enduring and positive effect on his character.

Regarding wisdom and the increase of knowledge as an end in itself, something whereby to measure esteem, and not as a basis and goal for one’s actions, causes one to become “top heavy”, like a tree with large branches and thick foliage but with a weak, underdeveloped root system. When challenges arise, perhaps in the form of strong winds of temptation, greed, pride, or undue ambition, they will uproot the tree and cause it to topple. Likewise, should a tornado or hurricane of persecution, hardship or extremely difficult circumstances strike, one’s faith will be severely tested and could falter and fail. The result may negatively interfere with a person’s communication and meaningful interaction with others. This hinders one in forming strong, true, warm relationships and, even when not outwardly evident, one will suffer a gradual isolation and dryness of soul.

If one finds oneself in such a parched and spiritually dry place, however, the constant encouragement provided by the Word of God is that He always meets His people in the wilderness – to guide one through, and to give provision and strength. [4] As Yeshua also promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” [5]

But anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many, so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow on it, they cannot budge it from its place – as it is said: “And he shall be as a tree that is planted by water and by the streams it spreads out its roots; then it shall not perceive any heat when it comes, and its foliage shall be verdant; nor shall it be troubled in the year of drought, nor cease from bearing fruit.”

Winds carry clouds of much needed rain and they can be gentle, balmy and refreshing. On the other hand, they can cause much damage. Small embers can be fanned into a blazing forest fire. Calm waters can become raging waves, as we see happen with the Sea of Galilee in the gospels. [6] Desert sand can become a blinding sandstorm. We all know that in times of extreme stress our reactions are tested to the limit, and very often we may fail and become angry, inconsiderate, even cruel in our acts and responses toward others. The “heat” of a situation can cause us to boil over!

When our wisdom is more than head-knowledge, however, and our actions have become a steady stream in accord with the “Living Water” of the Word of God, even should we fail we will be quick to repent, make the necessary amends, learn in the process and grow ever stronger in character. The more rooted we become in the Word, the more Messiah-like our attitudes and actions will become and the stronger the “root system” of our faith will become. Then we will never fail to bear fruit for our Creator’s glory. [7]

America’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), endorsed this view of Rabbi Ben Dosa when, on May 1, 1926, he addressed the Boy Scouts National Council in Washington, D.C., and said: “Development and character…can be secured only through action. The strengthening of the physical body, the sharpening of the senses, the quickening of the intellect… is invaluable in the growth and training of youth… represented by the Boy Scout movement… Members must promise to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent… the boy may not be merely passive in his alliance to righteousness. …We need a greater faith in the strength of right living. We need a greater faith in the power of righteousness. These are the realities which do not pass away.” [8]
Footnotes:

1. Jeremiah 17:6
2. Ibid. 8
3. Rabbi Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 345
4. Deut. 31:6; 1 Chr. 28:20
5. Heb. 13:5
6. Matthew 14:24; Luke 8:24
7. Psalm 92:1
8. “American Presidency Project”; Calvin Coolidge

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