Wisdom vs Actions
In Pirkei Avos, "Ethic of the Fathers", 3:17, we are taught that one whose wisdom exceeds his actions is incomparable to one whose actions exceed his wisdom - the latter person is praised. The former is likened to a tree with many branches but few roots, and is susceptible to winds which uproots it, and turns it on its face. But one whose actions exceed his wisdom, is likened to a tree with fewer branches than its roots. Such a tree stands firmly in its place, despite the force of all the winds in the world. What is the analogy? What is the principle?
The tree is clearly equated to a person. A root is that which gives stability to a tree. In essence, we are being taught that a person's stability is in proportion to his actions, his mitzvos. ("Stability" refers to one who aligns his actions with the right life, outlined by God in His Torah.)
On the contrary, one might think that without knowledge (branches) one cannot have actions. "Knowledge is indispensable to my actions". This makes knowledge more primary, and more prized than actions, and suggests that our Rabbi's statement is inverted, and incorrect.
Another problem arises from a section the Talmud Moade Katan 9a-9b: Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's students compared two statements of King Solomon found in the book of Proverbs. One statement said Torah study is incomparable to anything man desires. Their deduction is that man's desires may not compare to Torah study, but perhaps God's desires - other mitzvos - do in fact equate to Torah study. But then, these student found another statement, "all desirous things cannot compare to it (Torah study)." The students now found proof that there is nothing comparable to Torah study, not even other divine commands. This being so, how are we to understand our statement that actions are more prized than one's learning? Learning Torah is the greatest command!
To answer our problem, we must define 'action', and this explanation must answer how Pirkei Avos praises actions over Torah wisdom.
What is 'action'? It is the implementation of one's knowledge. But do not many people have knowledge, yet, fail to act? One may see how destructive cheating is, yet, in his business practices, he is dishonest for the sake of accumulating greater wealth. He cheats others just to grow richer.
Does this man have a true knowledge of the destructive nature of cheating? Does he really feel others are as important as himself? Clearly not. 'His' wealth is a good, but the wealth of others is a small matter to him. It is precisely for this reason that the Torah demands a crook repay double that which he stole. He must experience the loss of his own, equal amount of money so as to realize - first hand - the evil that exists when one has no money for his needs.
Subsequent to repaying double, the crook may understand his evil. He will not steal again. His refrain from additional acts of stealing is his "root". This means to say that one who expresses his wisdom in his actions has successfully reached the highest level of 'conviction'. Until one acts on his knowledge, he has yet to fully agree with his knowledge. Abstract wisdom alone is not man's perfected state. Man must follow through in action. His actions are a"barometer" of his convictions. This does not contradict the other Talmudic lesson, that Torah study is the most prized activity. This merely teaches that one's learning must culminate in conviction. Knowledge is supreme, but knowledge is measured by conviction, by action. One who incorporates his knowledge into his actions is incomparable to one who does not.
This is a vital lesson. How many of us study Torah, but do not act on our knowledge. Either out of complacency, emotions opposing Torah ideals, or due to a lack of clarity, many of us do not act on our Torah knowledge. We know we must dedicate time each day and night to learning, but we don't, or we slack off. We know we must be charitable, but we don't give, or we give less than the prescribed 20% outlined in the Shulchan Aruch. We forfeit much if we do not fully agree with the ideas encased in each command, to the point of action.
Our lives have one goal: to perfect ourselves in accord with God's will. Our perfection - our "merit" - is measured by 'conviction', and our actions. If our knowledge is at a distance, and our actions do not reflect our wisdom, then we must stop, relearn, and rethink our Torah studies. To perfect oneself, means that one is fully convinced of the good instilled in each of God's commands. He studies the command, analyzes it, and understands how it benefits him. He does not act by rote behavior. Realization of the benefits afforded by God's commands propels this person to act, for his own good. Moses told the people that keeping the Torah was "...l'tove lach", "...for your own good."(Deut. 10:13) Each person possesses an innate desire to do the good for himself. All one must do is learn, and he will find the good encapsulated in each command, and he will act accordingly.
Why do many people fail to act on their knowledge? One reason is a lack of awe for the Creator of our Torah and the universe. If one truly comprehended the gravity of God's role as our Maker and the Designer of the Torah, and that his happiness could be excelled to newer heights through Torah study, he would most certainly indulge. But until one invests time, proving God's existence, His act of giving us the Torah at Sinai, and learning 'how' to learn, he dismisses learning as something which bores him. Interesting, the greatest minds disagreed, and conversely, spent all their waking hours in study, be it physics of the universe, psychology, ethics, or Torah. Doesn't this teach something? Don't dismiss learning so quickly. And if you are older, it is never too late to start.
Overestimation of material goods versus spiritual knowledge is another mistake. Most of our world follows the ethic that happiness is derived from wealth, travel, and beautiful homes and cars. Until you analyze this belief, why follow it? Don't waste your life following others, who waste theirs, and do so with no rationale.
Most of the world feels our limited, physical existence is more precious than the spiritual life. Thus, more energies are expended on material gain, and little energies are devoted to Torah study. Many justify their countless hours at work, because they have expensive homes and cars to pay off. But who told them to buy such exorbitant things? One must correct this literally "grave" error by coming to terms with his own mortality. Would a person really value 70 years in a luxurious villa, over an eternity of wisdom? And even this is not the best attitude, as one only learns out of a true thirst of knowledge, when the Future World is not a consideration. The Sages only anticipated the Future World as a means for an undistracted state of the same experience of God's wisdom realized while alive.
Pirkei Avos also says, "mi-at b'osek, v'osek b'Torah". "Minimize your involvement in work, and indulge in Torah." Start to bridge the gap between your Torah knowledge and your actions. Only then will you be truly meritorious of your actions, as they will now be based on clear understanding and conviction, arrived at by Torah study alone.