"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."
Last week we discussed the advice of our mishna -- that Torah study alone
will never produce moral and ethical individuals. Pure and abstract wisdom
will never "endure". It might linger in our brains for a good while, but
it will never transform us as individuals. Only through practice will we
truly appreciate the Torah and will its messages influence us for the
We also discussed a number of psychological insights which stem from our
mishna. As we learned, deeds impact on a person -- regardless of his
motives in performing them. If we act a certain way, that will become who
we are -- even if deep down we feel it is not "us". Having a good heart is
meaningless if our actions are wicked: our inherent goodness will quickly
dissipate or become corrupted (although people cling to the belief that
deep down they're alright long after that ceases to be). Likewise, a "bad"
heart will become a good one if we only follow the behavior we know to be
proper. Never feel you are dishonest with yourself if you behave on the
outside while fantasizing within. We are our actions far more than our
thoughts or beliefs. Eventually, good deeds will become good thoughts and
a good soul.
This week I'd like to add another angle to this discussion -- yet another
psychological insight which stems from the words of our mishna.
Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary to the mishna, asks the following
question: What does our mishna mean "one whose deeds are greater than his
wisdom?" How can our deeds to be more than our wisdom? We can only "do"
that which we "know"? Any mitzvah (commandment) which I fulfill, by
definition I must know about? If so, how can I possibly do more?
(I believe the simple explanation -- and the one we implied last week --
is that one can technically know about a mitzvah, but can understand very
little of its true complexity and significance. One who does more than he
knows performs good deeds without fully comprehending their magnitude --
but performs them knowing that an all-good G-d commands only that which is
best for His subjects.)
R. Yonah answers that although technically one cannot fulfill a mitzvah he
or she does not know about, our mishna refers to one who has *accepted* to
do all the mitzvos. This means if a person accepts upon himself to fulfill
all the mitzvos -- including the ones he does not yet know about -- G-d
immediately considers him fully observant: He is fully righteous in the
eyes of the L-rd. Ignorance of some of the details is not held against a
person who would observe all the mitzvos if he would only know what they
are. Ignorance is sadly all too prevalent today; true devotion is what G-d
Further, it's likely that if a person truly desires to fulfill G-d's will,
he will make every effort to study and find out that which he does not yet
know. And so, his resolve will soon become reality. (Obviously, one cannot
honestly claim he would *like* to fulfill everything if he never bothers
to find out what the Torah requires.) And, as our mishna tells us, such a
person's wisdom will endure. What he knows he fulfills and what he does
not know he commits to. Both his will and his knowledge will be
incorporated into his self.
I believe R. Yonah's comment brings to light yet another profound insight
regarding the manner in which G-d runs the world. How can R. Yonah so
grandly promise that G-d will reward us for that which we did not do --
just because we'd like to do it? What is the justification? Sure,
we *would* have done had we known, but bottom line, we did not do? What is
the reward based on? Is it a consolation prize? If the Torah said eat
matzah on Passover, we either did so or we did not? Perhaps G-d would not
hold it against someone who did not know better, but what is the
justice on the Divine scales in playing make-believe, in pretending
inaction is action?
(For that matter, if will is so significant, would G-d punish a
person for planning to do something wrong even if when the time comes he
resists his temptation?! At least for a time he planned to do
The answer to this reveals a profound lesson about G-d's justice system as
well as human nature. In Leviticus (26:42), when G-d promises to remember
the merit of our forefathers, the Torah states: "And I shall remember My
covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant
with Abraham shall I remember...." The midrash (Toras Kohanim Ch. 8:7,
brought in Rashi there) on this verse asks: Why does the word "remember"
appear both next to Abraham's and Jacob's names but not next to Isaac's?
Answers the midrash, because G-d does not need to "remember" Isaac. His
ashes are visible before Him always -- on the altar where Abraham
Hmm... Any Bible buffs out there? Who remembers that at that last
climactic moment, G-d sent an angel telling Abraham *not* to sacrifice his
beloved son -- that the offering was unnecessary? Abraham and Isaac both
walked away unscathed, having successfully passed their trial, and the
story of the Jewish People continued. What in the world does the midrash
mean by Isaac's ashes? He walked off and lived happily ever after?
The answer is that on G-d's heavenly scales, Isaac's binding was judged
not by the physical act alone. G-d peered down from the heavens and saw a
father and son wholeheartedly willing to overcome their strongest human
emotions for the sake of their G-d. They went against every personal drive
and human impulse for a cause infinitely higher: the recognition that man
exists to serve G-d alone and that all personal drives and desires must be
directed towards that ends. Abraham was prepared. And Isaac was prepared.
And G-d saw this and told them to stop.
It was enough. The action had been done. Their commitment had been
total. Once that point had been reached there was no reason for Isaac to
actually sacrifice himself -- and to snuff out the nation just then
being conceived and nurtured on such devotion. The sacrifice was
carried out -- in every sense and in every realm other than the physical.
For in G-d's eyes Isaac's ashes do exist. Our forefathers could then
continue to live their lives all the more meaningfully and to
continue their mission of fashioning the Nation of Israel. (Michtav
Mai'Eliyahu Vol. 2, p. 199; see also ArtScroll Bereishis, overview to
Parshas Vayeira, pp. 614-16.)
Ultimately, G-d does not judge us according to our actions alone. He
judges us according to our commitment: who we really are, and what
our actions represent. If our desire -- our true will and desire -- is to
follow G-d's will -- and our actions reflect this to the best of our
abilities -- then we are G-d's servants. We can build a
relationship with G-d based on a very real, concrete foundation of
devotion and spirituality.
And this is far more meaningful -- and real -- to G-d than physical deeds
fulfilled with empty hearts and little commitment. Say a person grew up
with little formal Jewish education and knows little Jewish law, but has
the courage to recognize truth and pursue it -- he or she wants to
grow. There is no estimating what his will is worth to G-d. It may well be
far more precious to G-d than the actions of a person who was say, born
and raised in a strictly Orthodox home -- who would never dream of
entering a MacDonald's -- but who has never really thought it out and
reached his way of life through sacrifice and commitment. Actions are
essential. They demonstrate our commitment and help us realize our
potential for growth. But their true worth is in what they demonstrate
about us alone. Empty actions in no way equal true commitment.
But what of sin? Would we likewise say that a person who wants to sin --
who feels the lure of temptation -- is a sinner because of his nature?
Does a desire for evil imply that we are intrinsically evil, just as our
desire for good reflects our inherent goodness? Does G-d punish us for
wanting to do evil even if we do not commit it?
To this the Talmud writes: G-d rewards us for planning to do a good deed
along with the deed itself. However, (generally speaking) G-d does not
punish us for the planning to sin, only for sin itself (Kiddushin 40a). It
is Judaism's firm belief that man is inherently good. We are endowed with
a divine soul -- which desires spirituality over pettiness, G-dliness over
coarseness. When it comes to mitzvah performance, there is an assumption
that the thoughts -- our will to serve G-d -- stem from our true desire.
It is what we truly wanted, and we are judged accordingly. Our plans to
transgress G-d's will, however, are not truly ours, and do not warrant
Divine punishment. The Talmud tells us that a person sins only when he is
not thinking straight (Sotah 3a). When we follow -- or even want to
follow -- our good inclinations, our thoughts as well as our acts are real
and meaningful. If we slip, we may be taken to task for our actions, but
our thoughts were and are always towards our G-d.