Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah used to say:
Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, to what is he likened?
– to a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few;
when the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down.
But one whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, to what is he likened?
– to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous;
even if all the winds in the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place.
The “point” is rather clear. If our wisdom / knowledge / learning exceeds what we actually practice of it – we are rather “showy” on the surface (lots of branches and leaves), but are vulnerable to being knocked over in times of trouble. This wisdom has emerged several times in earlier Pirke Avot sayings, such as Pirke Avot 1:17 – “not study but practices are the main thing”.
On the other hand – if our good deeds and practice of wisdom / knowledge / learning exceeds what is seen of our wisdom – we have deep and extensive roots that will protect us no matter what.
This wisdom come from a time and culture which greatly esteemed learning and study. To have a great command of the Law and its exceptions and interpretations was an important goal – along with the opportunity to show it off and to be respected as a source to turn to.
BUT, the rabbi points out, the first purpose of such wisdom and learning was to use it and apply it in one’s own life. Whatever was not actually applied in one’s own life was mere “book learning” or theory. That has a value, but not a substantial value. In the end, if one has not applied the vast amount of knowledge in one’s own life it has been wasted and all will come tumbling down.
The reverse is true as well. If we take the time to put into practice what we are learning we reinforce it (again and again), digging deeper and more extensive roots with each passing day. We may have a lesser breadth to what we know – but what we know is integrated and thoroughly digested and congruent with our lived experience of the world.
Such a person teaches well because the examples will come from one’ own life experiences. Such a person is humble and recognizes his / her limits. Such a person sees the difficulties in applying certain rules and practices because he / she has struggled themselves with them.
And so the practical application for us today? What preachers are always reminded to do: practice what you preach, practice what you learn in everyday life. It’s easy to see with learning another language – if you don’t speak it every day you begin to lose it and you really never even get it! Even more so with the moral life and the life of faith! All the study in the world, if it is not being lived in your life, has no real value to you – and you don’t really know it at all.