Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Shoftim 76 - Learning and action-good deeds , what drives what ?

'When you besiege a city for an extended period, to make war against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees…... for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down,   - for is the tree of the field a man? or, for man is like the tree of the field – (2 ways to read this), that you should besiege it? Only the trees which you know are not trees for food may you destroy and cut down, in order to build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Devarim 20:19-20)
כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור: {כ} רק עץ אשר תדע כי לא עץ מאכל הוא אתו תשחית וכרת ובנית מצור על העיר 
Our verses deal with times of war and it is in this context that we are warned to preserve fruit trees. Man acts in a most destructive way against the planet -his home in times of war. Today, when chemical and atomic warfare is available and has been used, this message is very relevant. IS  the tree of the field a man that he can flee into the besieged city ?  or why make war on trees ? - they are non-combatants. We can read this as a statement, not a question -  for man is like the tree of the field – for man's life is dependent of the fruit of the tree and there is a promise that after the war you will eat from the tree. The exception to the rule  -  trees  that don't bear fruit or give food, may be cut down for a purpose ( building).  The prohibition of meaningless destruction of tress is extended to not unnecessarily destroying or wasting objects called the laws of ' bal tashchit ' - do not destroy. The cutting down of forests – non- fruit bearing trees can have a negative ecological impact on the environment and man's future, so forests need sustainable management that takes into account their  regenerative capacity. Fruit bearing trees can be cut down if there are good reasons justifying this.

The statement – for man is like the tree of the field is seen by Sages as a metaphor – man can be compared to a tree. Psychologists use  the ' tree drawing test ' that  reveals something about  personality. The trunk represents the sense of who you are and how intact your personality is - a small trunk – you feel weak, a large trunk, you have more strength. The branches are like your limbs symbolizing the efforts you make to connect to the world and support your needs to survive. Leaves and fruit are symbols of productivity. Roots show a sense of security and being in touch with reality.

The Mishna from Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our fathers 3:17
כל שחכמתו מרבה ממעשיו, למה הוא דומה, לאילן שענפיו מרובין ושרשיו מעטין, והרוח באה ועוקרתו והופכתו על פניו. אבל כל שמעשיו מרובין מחכמתו, למה הוא דומה, לאילן שענפיו מעטין ושורשיו מרובין, שאפילו כל הרוחות שבעולם באות ונושבות בו אין מזיזין אותו ממקומו. 
Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, what is he comparable to? To a tree with many branches and few roots; comes a storm and uproots it, and turns it on its face. But one who's good deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? - To a tree with many roots and few branches, whom all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place. Here, the roots of the tree are compared to a man's good deeds and actions and the branches – the head of the tree are compared to a man's learning, wisdom and Torah. What feeds, secures and   the source of man's wisdom - are his good deeds and actions.

הגמרא בקידושין מ:. שאלה  תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול? נענה רבי טרפון ואמר - מעשה גדול. נענה רבי עקיבא ואמר- תלמוד גדול. נענו כולם ואמרו- תלמוד גדול, שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה.
The Gemorrah in Kidushin 40b asks – what is greater - Learning or mitzvoth - actions. R' Tarpon answered – actions, R' Akivah answered – Learning is greater. Then all the Rabbis in the study hall answered – learning is greater because it leads to action. A person in essence is his Torah – תורתו, a live, dynamic and walking Torah scroll .He can be described as a tree of dynamic knowledge and when he does mitzvoth and good deeds, he is giving expression to his inner being, he is giving expression to his Torah, a Torah which he has internalized and integrated, a Torah which is part of his personality. The tree is his wisdom - his Torah, and his good deeds, mitzvoth and actions are the fruits of his learning. The tree is greater than the fruit.  From this Gemorah, the source of a man's good deeds is his Learning.

Our Mishnah from Pirkei Avot sees good deeds as ' roots' feeding, securing and driving learning whereas our gemorrah in Kidushin sees learning as the source of our actions and the driving force to good deeds, mitzvoth and actions. So how can we reconcile the two statements? We have learning and actions – what drives what?

There is an obvious question on our Mishnah's statement – 'how can good  deeds should exceed one's wisdom'. ? We usually act on our knowledge in our order to pursue any planned action, so wisdom always exceeds one's deed. The opportunities for learning are many, both formal and informal, but opportunities for action are more limited. R' Yonah explains that when the Israelites made a sincere commitment to bring the Pascal sacrifice, the Torah credited them as if they did it immediately. A general commitment to fulfill God's commandments and mitzvoth, even those that one has not yet learned, is credited by God as if one has already done the action. This makes one's actions greater than one's knowledge. So what drives  learning  is a desire to learn to be active in the world  and a commitment to action. It is a desire to answer questions related to actions and good deeds, solve life's problems, act in the world, and be of service to man and to serve God. The Gemorah in Kidushin sees man as the Torah within himself. His ultimate desire, like the pianist who wants to perform before an audience in a great concert hall, is to give expression to his learning and act on his learning.  The Gemorah in Menachot 98 says that ' sometimes the stopping and not learning Torah to do mitzvoth is the very foundation of the Torah ' -  שביטולה של תורה זהו יסודה-קיומה  פעמים.  Action and good deeds drive learning and give it direction while the learning itself builds Torah personalities who want to give expression to their Torah and do mitzvoth in the world.

What drives the educational system is getting good test scores rather than teaching kids relevant material so they can act in the world. Learning should be driven by questions, problems and projects. It is about being in the world and acting in the world. Once they are involved in answering questions, solving problems and doing projects we can really assess true  learning. There is  no need for a test and in the end we  have ' exhibitions of  their mastery' and children who have internalized and integrated their learning,  burning with desire to share their learning and give expression to their learning by doing.     

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