Over the past weeks, we saw how Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa (Avot 3:9) and Rebbi Elazar ben Azariah (Avot 3:17) condition chochmah on yirah. These Tannaim also link chochmah to ma’asim (actions/deeds). Wisdom should reflect faith and be rooted in action.
Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa not only taught the importance of ma’asim — he lived it as well. The Gemara (Sotah 49a) tells us that when Rebbe Chanina passed away, the world lost its “anshei ma’aseh — people of action.” Rebbi Chanina was an exceptional person of deeds.
An Ultimate Practical Goal
Though Judaism attributes great value to Torah learning and accumulating wisdom (…v’talmud Torah k’neged kulam), actions are more important. As Rebbi Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel taught: “Study is not the most important thing, but action (Avot 1:17).
In fact, actions are learning’s ultimate aim. Later in Avot, Rabbi Yishmael ben Beroka defines ideal learning as that which is done in order to act (Avot 4:5). Rava often opined that “teshuvah and ma’asim tovim are the goal of chochmah.” (Berachot 17a). Ultimately, the action that learning inspires is what makes learning of supreme importance. In the words of the Gemara, “Learning is great(est) because it facilitates ma’aseh” (Kiddushin 40b).
Torah coupled with good deeds is the ideal form of life. Later in Avot (6:10), Rebbi Yossi ben Kisma identifies these as the two things we take with us from this world. In a similar vein, the Gemara explains that Abaye was granted 20 more years of life than Rava because of the good deeds he performed in addition to his learning of Torah (Rosh Hashanah 18a).
For this reason, our blessings and prayers for children focus on both Torah and good deeds, ma’asim tovim. At a brit, we bless that “just as the child entered the brit, so should he enter a world of Torah and ma’asim tovim.” When lighting candles on Friday nights, we pray that our children should use the Torah and good deeds to enlighten the world.
A Critical Condition
Ma’asim tovim are not only ideal, but also a critical complement to Torah learning. Rebbi Yossi taught that someone who says he has only Torah lacks even Torah (Yevamot 109b). Rav Papa added that anyone involved in learning should also do good deeds; anyone who doesn’t is considered to not be involved in learning either.
This is why (the aforementioned) Rebbi Yossi ben Kisma told Rebbi Chanina ben Teradyon that it was (only) his good deeds that merited him a place in Olam Haba. Though Rebbi Chanina ben Teradyon was known for his limud HaTorah and was killed al kiddush Hashem, his entry into the next world hinged on his ma’asim.
Beyond the importance of ma’asim in general and to chochmah in particular, Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa and Rebbi Elazar ben Azariah emphasize the importance of performing ma’asim that exceed the amount of one’s chochmah. Why do we need more ma’asim than wisdom?
I believe there are two answers to this question, and that they connect to the two lines of the mishnah. The first part of the mishnah speaks about a situation where a person’s chochmah exceeds their ma’asim. Rashi sees this as describing a situation where one is not translating their wisdom into action. Obviously, this is a problem.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk connects this to the Gemara’s expectation that one who sees what happens to a sotah should commit himself to being a nazir and separate from wine. For our learning to be meaningful, we need to translate the lessons we learn from Torah and life experiences into action. The Ramban conveyed this in his famous letter to his son: “When you get up from the sefer that you are learning, make sure to consider how to translate what you’ve learned into action.”
If non-actualization were the only concern, an amount of ma’asim equal to one’s chochmah would suffice. However, the second line of the mishnah requires our actions to surpass our wisdom. Why is this necessary? How is this necessary?
Next week, we will iy”H work on appreciating why our ma’asim need to surpass our chochmah and how this is critical to chochmah’s sustainability.
Summarized by Rafi Davis.