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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 22

We are still talking about Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah, from last week. And his saying is not a new idea, but a new expression of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s saying in verse twelve. Only… well, let’s look at the text, first.

He used to say: He whose wisdom is more abundant than his works, to what is he like? To a tree whose branches are abundant but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and uproots it and overturns it, as it is written, He shall be like a tamarisk in the desert and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness. But he whose works are more abundant than his wisdom, to what is he like? 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 against it, it cannot be stirred from its place, as it is written, He shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out his roots by the river, and shall not fear when heat cometh, and his leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

So, on the surface, yes, he’s just illustrating the bit about wisdom and deeds. But really, I don’t think he’s having a conversation here with Chanina ben Dosa, but with Jeremiah. When you look at the proof texts in their context, and then look at Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah’s text, something very different emerges.

Let’s take the first one, the one who is all wisdom and no proverbial; From Jeremiah, he is like the ar’ar ba-aravah, the naked desert. Probably the naked plant, the tree without leaves. Our translator, Herbert Danby D.D., is either making his own translation of the Jeremiah or he is working from an untrustworthy one; a tamarisk is eshel, and this is clearly not that. The tamarisk is known for being shady and moist; Jeremiah is talking about something closer to this, I think. But that is not, clearly not, what Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah is talking about, with abundant branches and few roots. The Rabbi is, in fact, talking about a tamarisk. Thus, I imagine, Dr. Danby’s confusion.

So we’ve got the tree backwards; but what else? Well, for Eliezar ben Azariah, as we have seen, the fellow who is like that tree is like that tree because his wisdom is more abundant than his works. But in Jeremiah, who is like that tree? The fellow who trusteth in man, and makes flesh his arm is like that tree.

And the other man?

The other man is like ha-aytz shatul mayim, the tree planted by the water. Because he trusteth in the Lord. That is the man who Eliezar ben Azariah describes as having more roots than branches, and having more works than wisdom.

I think Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah has the whole thing upside-down. But—and here’s the fun part—I think he has it upside-down on purpose. Stick with me.

[YHB rolls out a large chalkboard with the Jeremiah verses on the left and the Avot verse on the right, and starts circling words and drawing lines between them]

The man who trusts in man but not in the Lord, who is he? How can you identify him? Not by his roots, which you can’t see. Not by the trust, which you can’t see. Not by his wisdom, which you can’t see. How can you identify the man who trusts in the Lord? By that trust? By his roots? By his wisdom?

The man who trusts in the Lord can be identified, not by the trust he places in the Divine, but by the active work, the tangible deeds, his relations with men and with the things around him. The man who fails to trust in the Divine cannot be identified by searching the Divine, but by searching the creation of the Divine, and seeing the absence of works.

In other words, the person who acts as if he is concerned about people, who works for the benefit of people, who doesn’t abandon people or exploit them or hurt them—if you are looking at it right-side-up, you think that that is the person who trusts in people. But if you are looking at it upside-down (that is, the correct way), you see that the person who spends time working for people, to alleviate their problems and bring them joy, that is the person who trusts in the Divine, the person whose invisible roots are even stronger than the visible branches.

But the other person, the one who acts as if the Divine Creation was made only for him, the one who does not have works to her credit, the one who builds up wisdom for its own sake and to show off and to lord it over the rest—that person does not trust the Divine but only in man; that is a person with weak branches and weaker roots, a person who will blow over in a storm, who won’t see good things in other people, or even, at last, in the self.

We tend to walk around right-side-up, because it’s easier that way. We look around at things right-side-up. The right-side-up simile is that visible deeds are like branches, and invisible wisdom like the roots that feed them. It’s good to have an upside-down simile, at least now and then, to say that the wisdom is the crown of the tree and the deeds are the roots that anchor it; to reflect that the things you can see are the things that count; to put your crown in the dirt and wave your roots in the air; to trust in the Divine by working for the Creation; to have a naked tamarisk and a leafy Joshua tree; to take things the wrong way around to get to the right answer at last.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.