Roots and Branches*

Jeremiah 17: 5-8

5 Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD. 6 For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. 7 Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the LORD is. 8 For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit..
In typical fashion, the Jewish sages of old paid the closest attention to the wording of the verses in Jeremiah's message. Based on his understanding of Jeremiah's simile for the person lacking in faith, the first-century sage Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah derived a lesson that is recorded in the Mishnah (Avot 3:7):

Following is the teaching of Rabbi Eleazar:

To what shall we compare a person whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds? To a tree that has many branches but few roots. Along comes the wind and uproots it, overturning it completely, even as Jeremiah says: "For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, [in] a salt land and not inhabited."

On the other hand: one whose good deeds exceed their wisdom, to what may we compare such a person? To a tree that has few branches but many roots. Even if all the winds in the world were to come and blow upon it, they would not succeed in budging it from its place, as it says: "For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit."

This passage is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, the proof texts do not seem to fit the argument that they are being brought to support. The prophet is speaking of faith and faithlessness, while Rabbi Eleazar is discussing wisdom and good deeds.

Furthermore, even if we are prepared to allow Rabbi Eleazar a bit of homiletic license, there is something in his message that irritates our sense of logical sequence. For according to the prevailing norms of Western thought, theory must always precede action: First you must understand rationally why you ought or ought not to do something, and only afterwards should you follow through with the consequences of your convictions.

Rabbi Eleazar's statement seems to defy reason. It sounds like a recipe for ignorance and fanaticism, an encouragement to leap before you look, to come to decisions before you have thought the matter out adequately.

Anyone who is familar with the personality of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah will recognize that this could not possibly be what he had in mind. Rabbi Eleazar was, after all, an accomplished scholar, proficient in the intricacies of the Bible and ancestral tradition, a man who devoted his life to the most profound and sophisticated analysis of Jewish law and lore--hardly the type that one would expect to speak lightly of scholarship or intellectual rigour.

But I think we all realize that the word "wisdom" encompasses several different qualities, and it would be helpful to examine which of them was intended by Rabbi Eleazar.

In our society wisdom is often equated with intellectual accomplishment, with the amassing of data and with technological skill. Hardly a day goes by when we are not given some reason to gape in amazement at how our scientists have outdone themselves in advancing the frontiers of human knowledge.

These scientific breakthroughs have given us the means to increase crop yields and to cure hitherto invincible diseases. But they have also unleashed the energy to destroy all life on this planet a hundred times over (and you can even choose whether you prefer to be done away with in a single nuclear blast or through a gradual poisoning of the oceans and atmosphere).

This is the same "wisdom" that has linked millions of people together in intricate electronic communications networks, giving equal access to philosophers, teachers, pornographers and hate-mongers. This is the wisdom that, two generations ago in Europe, reached such high levels of industrial efficiency that it could transfer unprecedented numbers of human undesirables to be processed in gas chambres, and efficiently dispose of the bodies in mass crematoria. This is the wisdom of Herr Prof. Doktor Werner von Braun, who was equally comfortable using his rockets to launch American astronauts into space, or deadly explosives into the residential neighbourhoods of London.

But, as the saying goes, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to recognize what happens when we place such immense power in the hands of people whose foliage (to use Rabbi Eleazar's image) waves gloriously in the air, but are not rooted in any value system.

This, then, seems to be what Rabbi Eleazar had in mind when he insisted on the priority of "good deeds" to wisdom. He was sounding the alarm against those whose intellectual and technological attainments are not guided by a clear moral direction.

It would appear that the destructive potential of morally neutral learnedness is not of recent vintage. Rabbi Eleazar migght have encountered it every day in the well-oiled machine of the Roman occupying forces, even as Jeremiah would have witnessed it in the advanced material cultures of Judea or Babylonia. If there is any meaningful difference between our days and theirs, it probably has more to do with the dimensions of the damage that we can now inflict when our intellectual advances are not subject to moral or spiritual restraints.

In our society we have turned over the education of our children to publicly administered schools rather than leaving it in the hands of the parents, and I believe that this was a welcome and benevolent development. Liberal democracies have also done their best to avoid using the public schools to indoctrinate the young students in the views of a particular established religion; this too is a wise and fair policy.

Unfortunately, many of have allowed our children's spiritual welfare to fall between the cracks, abandoning the responsibility that traditionally lay with us as parents, to instill in our children the fundaments ethical principles and compassionate qualities that can best be provided by a religious tradition.

As understood by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, Jeremiah was aiming his criticism at those who possess a wisdom that is not grounded in the fear of God, but who act out of purely human-centered motives. There are several different factors that can motivate intellectual pursuits: Pride and the pursuit of public adulation are, of course common ones, as are greed and convenience.

And let there be no mistake about it: There can be no objective, scientific basis for ethical theory. From the perspective of pure science there is no difference between a human organism and any other random accumulation of molecules. Anyone who speaks of moral imperatives, whether or not they quote from a scripture or invoke the name of a deity, is speaking religiously.

In previous generation, there was a realistic awareness that the quality of the intellect was significantly shaped by a person's moral training. Maimonides and other medieval philosophers argued that underlying the restrictions of several areas of Biblical law, such as the dietary regulations, was the premise that unless people learned to control their impulses and appetites, those urges would take control their minds, blurring the truth and twisting it so as to rationalize the pleasure or convenience of the moment.

Modern culture has adopted a more dualistic perspective, believing that the mind can develop autonomously, unaffected by the weaknesses of the body or the social environment. In this approach, I think we are deceiving ourselves. As the ancient Jewish saint, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, put it:

If the fear of sin precedes wisdom, then that wisdom will endure. But if the wisdom comes prior to the fear of sin, then that wisdom will be short-lived."

Perhaps it was for this reason that classical Judaism insisted on maintaining a significant proportion of its tradition in unwritten form, as the "Oral Torah." In this way, the disciple's education could never be reduced to the mechanical collection of facts and technical skills that could be derived from books. Rather, the educational process required the student to maintain personal contact with the teacher, living with him and observing his conduct in daily life. In what was admittedly a rather extreme case, the young Babylonian scholar Rav Kahana hid himself under the bed of his master, Rav, in order to observe how the teacher conducted his conjugal life. When Rav became aware of Kahana's presence and began to rebuke him, the student replied in all sincerity: "But it is Torah, and I must learn it!"

I am sure that any experienced parent will recognize that, when it comes to teaching our children, actions speak louder than any words. I hope that there is nobody here who would subscribe to the philosophy of allowing the young folks to work out their own ethical philosophy before reaching adulthood, without parental interference.

How apt is the prophet's image of those whose education is stunted by being confined to narrow human interests, without any grounding in spirituality!

For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land not inhabited

A tree with no roots is vulnerable to gusts from any momentary ideological caprice. Such an organism stands solitary in the wilderness, lacking the environmental influences that should be providing it with protection from destructive and anti-social influences. For all its learning and intelligence, such a rootless being, unable to recognize goodness and virtue, will eventually be uprooted and overturned.

Not so the one whose wisdom is directed towards compassion and love of God, whose intellect is firmly implanted in a life of moral activity and responsibility towards the world. Such a person is capable of standing firm against scorching winds of inhumanity, and has the strength of character not to be a blind follower of the frenzied mob.

For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green"

The moral nourishment that surges through those roots must indeed be strong, because there can be some powerful winds trying to dislodge them. Every society generates its own idolatries. In some instances, these winds take the form of totalitarian ideologies that sacrifice the individual to an abstract ideal. In others, it is the myopic interests of a balanced budget or a competitive marketplace; or of unrestrained free speech or technological progress. These idols will grow impatient or derisive when challenged by the still, small voices that insist on crying out for human dignity and compassion.

Jeremiah knew this well when he challenged the leaders of his day. So did Jesus, when he advised his disciples:

Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil

... Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.

There will never be shortages of false prophets, happy to assure their listeners in the name of God and scripture that all is right with society. But, as the Lord proclaimed to Jeremiah about such prophets:

The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart.

In the context of Brotherhood-Sisterhood Week, I think that this is an area in which our different traditions can find a common cause. It is a sacred duty of the religious communities to equip our people to distinguish between the authentic divine imperative and the many brands of attractively packaged sound-bytes and buzz words that pass for revelation in our shallow times.

Seen from this perspective, Jeremiah's words have an uncanny relevance to our contemporary situation. I think that it is now understandable why Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah chose to define the roles of faith and faithlessness in terms of their relationships to knowledge. Wouldn't it be wonderful if our "information age" could give way to a "wisdom age"!

As I noted earlier, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was an accomplished scholar in his own right. A later rabbi extolled the breadth of his knowledge, comparing it to a peddler's bag. When students would come to consult with him on any topic--Including matters of Scripture, exegesis, religious law or homiletic themes--Rabbi Eleazar would invariably have the appropriate answer at his fingertips. And when the questioners would depart from Rabbi Eleazar's presence, the text reports that they would be "filled with goodness and blessing."

From my personal perspective as a professional educator, I cannot help but envy that achievement. In my years of teaching, I can attest that I have imparted to my students huge volumes of information, as well as useful analytical and cognitive skills.

But how many of us--whether we are teachers, preachers or parents--can genuinely boast that that information filled our fellows with "goodness and blessing"?


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My e-mail address is elsegal@acs.ucalgary.ca

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*Guest sermon delivered at Church of the Good Shepherd (Anglican), Calgary, February 15 1998