As I made way to synagogue on Shabbat of last week, I saw the debris scattered across my lawn, as well as in streets, on our driveway, the synagogue parking lot and throughout the area as a result of the devastation of the terrible storm that had hit on Friday night. Power was knocked out and street lights were not working, as drivers had to either rely on etiquette or common sense, or recall what they had learned many years ago in driver’s ed about the rules for what to do upon arriving at an intersection with a nonfunctioning signal.
It was amazing to see how many branches were knocked down and how many large trees were uprooted. It is remarkable and fortunate that, considering the extent of the damage, there was not greater loss of life. Tall trees, which when upright stood 40-60 feet in the air, with huge trunks, of 10-20 feet diameter lay on their side, as if they were toothpicks knocked down by a flick of a finger.
I was surprised when upon closer inspection I noticed that these trees which stood so tall actually had such shallow roots. It helps explain why so many would fall over. Surveying the damage I couldn’t help but think of a verse from Pierkei Avot, Teachings of the Fathers, a collection of favorite sayings and statements of various rabbis in the Talmud.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught, “When a person’s wisdom exceeds his good deeds, to what may he be compared? To a tree with many branches, but few roots. A wind blows, uproots it and topples it over. However, when a person’s good deeds exceed his wisdom, to what may he be compared? To a tree with few branches, but many roots. All the winds of the world may blow against it, yet they cannot move it from its place” (Pierkei Avot 3:22).
In the ongoing debate among the rabbis about what is more important, good deeds or study, Rabbi Elazar weighs in and takes the side of emphasizing the importance of performing good deeds, comparing them to the roots of a tree. Elsewhere in the Talmud, other rabbis say that it is the study of Torah that is the most fundamental of all mitzvot, of all the commandments.
The answer or resolution of the debate is less important that understanding the dialectic tension in Judaism between concepts that appear to be contradictory. Our rabbis want us to understand that sometimes the answer is neither black, nor white, nor grey, but black and white, simultaneously.
As I looked at the mighty trees on the ground and saw how weak their roots were, I realizedwhat the rabbis were referring to in a way that I had never comprehended previously. Whether it is good deeds, or wisdom, study or action that one chooses to embrace, neither can be sustained without the other. Regardless of whether one likens the good deeds to roots, and wisdom to branches, or the other way around, to have an impact, the branches must extend wide and far, and to be everlasting the roots must be deep.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.