One of the problems of society is the possibility of a rift between knowledge and commitment, between intellectual attainment and a sense of direction in life. We might imagine that intensive acquisition of knowledge would guarantee that the person will use their talents in a way which is both wholesome in itself and beneficial to others. However, history is littered with figures who were both brilliant and dangerous. As we have seen in the history of European culture over the past two centuries, some forms of "scholarship" can lead to the worst excesses.

Jewish teaching has always been aware of this problem, as is seen in discussion by the Sages of an idea found in our Parshah and also elsewhere in the Torah.

The Parshah of Vayechi (Genesis 47-50) completes the Book of Genesis, and an important section is the blessing by Jacob to his sons, the ancestors of the Tribes, before he passed way. A comparable passage is at the end of the entire Torah, when Moses blesses the various Tribes of the Jewish people.

Let us consider one particular Tribe: Asher.

Jacob's final blessing to his son Asher is that his territory in the Land of Israel (north of modern Haifa) will produce an abundance of olives, which will be pressed into olive oil.1 This is paralleled by Moses' blessing to Asher, at the end of the Torah: "he dips his feet into oil", likewise meaning oil from the olive groves.2

The Rebbe points out that the background to the physical abundance of olive oil is something spiritual. In Jewish thought, "oil" signifies wisdom.3 Both Jacob and Moses were blessing the Tribe of Asher with wisdom. Of course this is a wonderful blessing, for a nation distinguished for its profound scholarship and thousands of books.

However, the second blessing, given by Moses, adds an interesting twist: the oil should be used to anoint the feet.

If oil signifies wisdom, what is meant by the "feet"?

The feet are the lowest part of the person, the point at which he or she stands on the ground and walks. The feet suggest something very basic in a person's life, quite different from wisdom, which of course is very subtle and exalted.

The feet represent the basic sense of commitment of the person, his or her direction in life. The clear and tangible sense of commitment is "anointed" and enriched by wisdom. However, the commitment has its own reality and integrity. "Wisdom" in itself may not always lead to the best form of commitment and the most meaningful direction.

"Why not?" one may ask. Surely wisdom will lead the person in the right direction? The problem is, the Rebbe points out, that the most important aspects of life transcend human wisdom. For example, two central values in Jewish teaching are love of one's fellow and its counterpart, humility. Obviously these qualities can and should be heightened by wisdom. But the central principles must come first. By contrast, an exclusive focus on scholarship might lead to a haughty and selfish approach to life.

The blessings to Asher from Jacob and later Moses, apply to everyone. There is a beautiful blessing of olive oil, wisdom. Yet the goal is that this should join with a sense of direction, commitment to the basic values of Judaism. Through this combination we can maintain a healthy balance in our journey to the Promised Land.4