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The Upside-Down Tree


One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree with many branches and few roots…. But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches….

Ethics of the Fathers 3:17

But isn’t it the other way around? Is not wisdom the root of deed, and every act of man the outgrowth of what he knows and understands?

Indeed, the tree of life is rooted in the mind. But there are times that we act upon a conviction that does not devolve from our mind’s conception of life, and is even antithetical to it.

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi discusses a phenomenon that is unique to Jewish history: the apostate martyr. Throughout the centuries, countless thousands of Jews were forced to choose between their faith and their lives; in the overwhelming majority of cases, they chose to die rather than renounce their Jewishness. Many creeds and causes have their martyrs; but Jewish martyrdom is unique in that it included many whose day-to-day lives were distant from the very principles for which they died. It is reasonable that the devout believer or the committed idealist might elect to die for the faith and ideals to which he has devoted his life; what defies all logical explanation is the fact that Jews whose understanding of Judaism was negligible, Jews who did not observe the mitzvot in their daily lives, went to their deaths rather than disavow a commitment which they had rejected in their lifetimes.

In truth, concludes Rabbi Schneur Zalman, every mitzvah is a supra-rational act, deriving from the Jew’s intrinsic, immutable bond with G-d. But only rarely are we attuned to this stratum of our being. Our daily lives are conducted on the rational plane of the psyche, where a person’s deeds are dictated by his understanding and appreciation of himself and his goals in life. But there are times—such as when our very identity faces its ultimate challenge—when our deepest self asserts itself in our thoughts and actions. Our endeavor in life should be to actualize this supreme commitment at all times, not only in “moments of truth” generated by acute crisis.[1]

In other words, there are two “trees” in the human soul. There is the tree of rational life, whose roots—the wisdom, knowledge and understanding the person has amassed—generate and nourish the branches, leaves, flowers and fruits of his actions and achievements. But underlying this tree is another tree—a tree in which deeds are the roots of wisdom. On this level, a person’s deeds are embedded in the soil of supra-rational faith and commitment, and nourish his understanding of himself, his world and his G-d.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Cheshvan 25, 5719 (November 8, 1958)[2]

This is an excerpt from “Beyond the Letter of the Law” by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life Center.


[1]. Tanya, chs. 18-19.

[2]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IV, pp. 1210-1212.


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