Chapter 3. Mishna 12 (a)
Actions Speak Louder
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"He [Rabbi Chanina] used to say, anyone whose good deeds are greater than
his wisdom -- his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom is greater
than his good deeds -- his wisdom will not endure."
This mishna continues the theme of the previous mishna. (Some editions of
Pirkei Avos combine this mishna and the previous into a single mishna.)
Last week R. Chanina taught us that one's fear of sin must precede his
Torah knowledge if his wisdom is to endure. Only one who fears sin -- who
has a sense of accountability towards G-d and respect for tradition, will
study the Torah with the requisite sense of commitment. He will take the
Torah's messages to heart and internalize them. One, however, who studies
without that basic sense of "fear" and commitment, may study out of
curiosity or for intellectual stimulation -- or even spiritual
stimulation -- but will not truly be ready to integrate the Torah's values
into his life. His study will remain external to his essence; it will not
become a part of him.
Here R. Chanina offers another requirement for having one's
wisdom "endure": practice. One's deeds must be greater than his or her
wisdom. He must do more than he understands. He cannot fulfill G-d's word
only after he's figured it out and has made sense out of it. He must first
do and only then attempt to understand.
The Children of Israel proclaimed at the foot of Mount Sinai, "We will do
and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7). They accepted to first "do": to follow
the letter of the law, and only then to "hear": to study, delve and learn
In a sense, the reason for this is self-evident -- G-d certainly knows
best; we must obey regardless of our limited ability to fathom. But I
believe our mishna's message is far more profound.
The Children of Israel accepted to "do" first: not to hinge their
observance of the mitzvos (commandments) upon their understanding of them.
This is simply because it is the height of folly to expect mitzvos which
emanate from an infinite and all-knowledgeable G-d to be readily
understandable to the human mind. If the Torah were man-made, if it were
the brainchild of human creativity, however great, later generations could
pass judgment on its worth and relevance based on their own notions of
justice and morality. But the Children of Israel in the desert knew
better: the Torah was not even divinely-inspired humanly-authored. It was
the word of G-d Himself. They *saw* G-d speak to Moses at Sinai. Man's
observance of the Torah could never depend on anything as limited, skewed
and frivolous as human understanding.
R. Chanina, however, is not simply telling us that our observance must
precede our understanding. He states that if it does not our wisdom will
never endure. We must do or our wisdom will never truly make sense to us
and become a part of us.
On one level, this is true because the Torah is not very meaningful if not
put into practice. The Torah was never intended to be an abstract science.
It is not merely a philosophical treatise, providing an ordered system of
logical beliefs. It contains lessons for living life. It is a practical
guide for living in this world and making sense of it all. It is what R.
Noach Weinberg (http://aish.com) describes as G-d's Users' Guide for
Planet Earth. And such knowledge will never be fully appreciated if left
on the shelf. It is an applied science, not an abstract one. It instructs
us in how to integrate eternal beliefs and ethical principles into real-
life situations, and how to use truth and morality to build happy,
functioning, and productive homes and societies -- as well as individuals.
Thus, the Torah can never be absorbed in any serious way through the
intellect alone. It must be practiced and lived for its beauty and wisdom
to truly penetrate the soul.
I believe there is a second great truth behind R. Chanina's words, one in
which Judaism distinguishes itself from many other religions. Judaism is
sometimes viewed as a religion which focuses more on ritual and form than
on substance and spirit. Other religions seem to preach that the important
thing is to have a good heart, to believe, to love your neighbor, and to
be yourself. (You'll pardon the oversimplification -- an ongoing fault of
Judaism believes in all of that of course ("Love your fellow as yourself"
does come from us, mind you (Leviticus 19:18)), but it almost seems
to "ruin" it by instructing us to death. There are rules and regulations
for nearly everything we say and do -- what we can eat, when we can eat,
how we can eat, etc. etc. ad infinitum. I mean, does G-d *really* care if
we have one or two sets of dishes? Sure, some of the rituals are
meaningful and help give our religion structure. But isn't simple faith
enough? Isn't man essentially good? Why be bogged down with so much
onerous and burdensome ritual? Why can't we just let our natural goodness
R. Chanina's answer is a bit sobering -- perhaps even a little depressing -
- but contains a tremendous insight into life. G-d did not give us the
Torah just so that we'd have good hearts or live with some basic tenets of
belief. We actually *do* have that naturally. It was so that we'd develop
ourselves as people. We all know that someone who wants to be good at
almost anything -- whether an athlete, musician, pilot, scholar -- has to
train. People are not born winners (or losers for that matter). Talented
athletes or musicians may have more potential than others, but realizing
that potential takes lots and lots of hard work. It requires practicing,
developing, honing, and drilling. And humankind likewise has an enormous
potential for good -- for being giving, spiritual, G-dlike individuals.
But it is only potential. Realizing that potential takes work: If we want
to make anything of ourselves our deeds must far outweigh our wisdom.
Being good is hard work. It *is* natural, but it does not *come*
naturally. (And in fact, it can easily be corrupted).
And this is the mission G-d presented us with when He created us:
developing our latent abilities for good and bringing them to actuality.
Towards this end G-d gave us the Torah and mitzvos -- the tools of our
training. Knowledge and understanding alone are not sufficient. Our mishna
tells us that we must practice if we want our wisdom to endure and truly
become a part of us. By studying and practicing, we both develop good
traits and sublimate "bad" ones in positive directions. But it does not
happen automatically; it takes prodigious effort. For as above, being good
is hard work. Being great takes a lifetime.
We learned earlier in Pirkei Avos, "Study is not the primary thing but
action [is]" (1:17). The Torah instructs us in G-d's will and Divine
values, but words alone will never change us. For one's wisdom to endure,
he must apply it and practice it. The purpose of the Torah is not to
impart knowledge. It is to fashion individuals -- into human beings in the
image of G-d.
In the Sefer HaChinuch, a master treatise on the 613 Commandments, the
author (a 13th Century Spanish scholar; the precise authorship is unknown)
offers a profound psychological insight: One who acts a certain way --
whatever his intentions -- will be influenced by his deeds and will
eventually become the person he impersonates (Mitzvah 16). The Nazis,
under the pretext of following orders, quickly became the most bestial and
sadistic of killers. And we, if we act out the part set out by the Torah,
will find ourselves becoming more upright, moral, and caring individuals.
Good deeds impact on a person: say we reluctantly give charity to the
fundraiser who comes to our door. All good deeds influence us one way or
the other, some in obvious ways, while others more subtly and
And this, in a single word, is the purpose of the mitzvos -- and the
ultimate purpose of our Torah study. We must not approach the Torah
expecting to first understand and then to do -- and certainly not with the
precondition that we will do only that which we first understand. Rather,
we must be prepared to do. I know the Torah was commanded by an infinite
Creator, and I know it contains truth. I will make my effort and show my
readiness to grow. And I know the growth will then follow.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.