When biblical authors, such as the prophet Jeremiah and the book of Psalms, were articulating blessings suitable for bestowing on those who place their faith in the Lord, they offered the comforting assurance that “he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river.”
These scriptural passages appear to furnish the basis for a teaching by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah in the Mishnah’s “Tractate of the Fathers” (Avot) in which the tree’s roots and branches are made to symbolize, respectively, a person’s good deeds and scholarly attainments: “Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what may he be likened? To a tree whose branches are abundant but whose roots are few. When the wind comes and uproots it, it can topple it... But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom—to what may such a person be likened? To a tree whose branches are few but has many roots. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not make it budge from its place.” Though the Mishnah did not cite biblical proof-texts from Psalms or Jeremiah, they were attached in the printed editions, and thereby attracted the attention of latter-day commentators.
Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s teaching is consistent with several other statements in Avot that downplay scholarship in favour of such moral values as fear of sin or common decency (derekh eretz). The nineteenth-century Ukrainian exegete Rabbi Meir Malbim is perhaps typical of scholars who had difficulty accepting that deeds could be given a priority over wisdom. In his explanation of the Mishnah he stressed how, unlike trees, human beings derive their principal nourishment—our spiritual and intellectual sustenance—from above and not from the soil beneath us. Indeed, he adduced the fact that our “roots” are situated in the upper parts of our bodies, rather than at the bottom, as proof that humans differ fundamentally from plants. This shows that nature did not design our species for mere biological subsistence, but that we have a loftier vocation.
At any rate, Rabbi Malbim conceded that there is something to be learned from the fact that the scriptural analogy is specifically to trees rather than to other kinds of plants like grass or herbage. Grass has no apparent purpose to its existence other than its own survival during a relatively brief growing season. This contrasts sharply with trees, which are long-lived and produce nourishing fruits, medicinal leaves, and other beneficial products. To be sure, there are people (Rabbi Malbim assumes that such people make up the majority of humankind) who are no better than common grass, in that their entire existence is confined to nothing more than taking care of their survival and physical comforts; but this is not the path prescribed by the Torah. Jews are instructed to devote their lives to nurturing the world around us with moral and spiritual fruits.
Talmudic interpreters also found it significant that in describing the blessed faithful as “a tree planted,” scripture did not employ the usual Hebrew word for planting (naṭa‘), but chose instead a more specific root: “shatal” that actually refers to trans-planting. Whereas most plants are allowed to remain permanently in the soil where their seeds first take root, it was standard practice to remove seedlings or saplings of fruit-trees from their initial nurseries and replant them elsewhere in order to make them healthier and more resilient.
Malbim observes how the image of transplanted trees is a very apt simile for highlighting a fundamental difference between the righteous and wicked personalities. The wicked remain forever entrenched in their mundane reality and never aspire to elevate themselves beyond the satisfaction of their basic material needs; whereas virtuous souls devote their sojourns on earth to transcending their earthly situation, preparing to “transplant” themselves to a higher spiritual level in the afterlife. In this respect the righteous, who maintain simultaneous residences in the present world and in the world to come, are comparable to transplanted trees rather than to stationary plants who spend their lifetimes entrenched in perpetuity in the same old rut.
It is in this context that Malbim understands the Bible’s apparent preference for deeds over wisdom. What is being disparaged, he argues, is not Torah scholarship but secular wisdom. While he acknowledges that non-Jewish philosophers are on the right track insofar as they strive to conduct their lives according to standards of justice and compassion in quest of a higher purpose, nonetheless their rationally derived values are inevitably prone to human error— unlike the divinely ordained path of the Torah.
Malbim’s contemporary Rabbi Israel Lipschutz of Danzig was arguably more faithful to the spirit of the original texts. Lipschutz understood the metaphor of the tree not as an advocacy of spirituality over materialism, but on the contrary, as a warning against excessive indulgence in intellectual or metaphysical abstractions.
Rabbi Lipschutz granted that a person’s wisdom may be his crowning glory, even as branches and foliage embody a tree’s splendour. However, it is the observance of the Torah’s commandments that constitutes the solid foundation of the “tree of knowledge.” When a tree has to distribute its nutrients through a vast internal vascular network that has to extend to very high branches, it is diverting vital resources from its base. “Similarly, a person who behaves in this manner, branching out his intellect and applying his intelligence to the examination of esoteric metaphysical principles, will thereby be diminishing the roots of piety in his heart.” These factors can bring about an uprooting of simple faith, and cause people to topple from their spiritual steadfastness.
The Talmud records a teaching from the school of Rabbi Yannai that applies the metaphor of the transplanted tree to the realm of Torah study in a different way: just as a sapling thrives best if it is transplanted to a new location, so too must students try to transplant themselves from one teacher to another in order to sample a variety of different scholarly approaches. “Whoever learns Torah from only one teacher, his studies will never be blessed with success.” (This is similar to the advice that we standardly dish out to graduate students, not to take all their degrees at the same institution.) The Maharal of Prague explained that a single teacher cannot provide a comprehensive outlook, but by learning Torah from several teachers the student acquires a broader range of divergent points of view. This instructional model is seen as a precious pedagogical and religious blessing.
The talmudic passage proceeds to relate the unfortunate experience of the Babylonian sage Rav Ḥisda who ventured to cite Rabbi Yannai’s teaching in the presence of his own pupils. As he anticipated, those students reacted by deserting him and setting off in search of a different teacher.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must inform my readers that there are other authors whose writings you might want to read and learn from (though I can’t really imagine why). Of course, you are welcome to meander around to experience differing points of view; but try not to let the perplexing diversity of that scholarly forest obstruct your ability to see the most fruitful trees—wherever they happen to be planted.
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