Friday, January 22, 2016

Pirke Avot 3:12: Actions Are More Powerful Than Words....And Wisdom

Talk is cheap......well, not quite. I find that talk is cheap when it isn't backed up by anything. Anyone can run their mouth. You know the type: the one who keeps talking for the sake of talking and appearing intelligent, even though the substance is non-existent. Referring to these types of people, former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said that "It is better to remain silent and have people say, 'I wonder what he's thinking,' than to speak up and have people say, 'I wonder why he spoke." Take that idea up a step: you come across a seemingly wise person who actually has some interesting things to say. However, those things don't manifest into anything practical or concrete. Words as a mere abstraction, with no practical meaning, can be a scary thought. As much I love intellectualism or profound conversation, wisdom seems like a waste when there aren't practical implications. Someone who doesn't translate that wisdom or intelligence into action is not as bright as they would seem at first glance, as a passage from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) points out:

כל שמעשיו מרבין מחכמתו, חכמתו מתקימת. וכל שחכמתו מרבה ממעשיו, אין חכמתו מתקימת.
Anyone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure. -Pirke Avot 3:12

Jewish tradition teaches that Torah study is as important as all the other mitzvahs (Mishnah Peah 1:1). It makes sense why Torah study ranks so highly. You have to know the do's and don'ts, what makes for right and wrong before you can actually do it. Wisdom has to precede action since it is not endowed, i.e., it has to be learned. However, wisdom doesn't end in an academic setting. Good deeds are applied wisdom. Rashi interprets the word as מתקימת "of everlasting value," i.e., the result of one's good deeds and charity are of everlasting value. When one's performance of mitzvahs is greater than his wisdom, his desire for more wisdom will increase, which will challenge the individual to increase wisdom (R. Yonah). The inverse is also true: an individual with greater wisdom than action will sit on his laurels of knowing more wisdom, won't acquire more wisdom, and the wisdom will fade. If the wisdom were true in the first place, the supposed wise individual would not have let such erosion take place in the first place.

That is why the truly wise individual is aware that actions need to supersede wisdom. The mitzvah of tefillin teaches us this lesson quite well. When we put on tefillin, the arm tefillin are put on first, and then the head tefillin. When taking off the tefillin, the head tefillin come off first. Never is there a moment in which the head tefillin is on while the arm tefillin is off. That halacha is to teach us an important lesson: Wisdom, which is represented by the head tefillin, is only useful when there is action, which is represented by the arm tefillin (Artscroll). Wisdom is only true wisdom when the wisdom is translated into action. One who studies Torah and does not fulfill it is like one who plants crops, but does not harvest them (Rashi). Yes, let's study Torah because it is the Jewish way of understanding G-d. But let's treat Torah like a Tree of Life (עץ חיים) and actually live Torah to actualize G-dliness. Much like a tree, let our actions and wisdom continue the symbiotic interplay that will ultimately branch out the joys of Torah.

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