The essential thing is not study, but deed

Ethics of the Fathers, 1:17


The Talmud relates:

Rabbi Tarfon and the sages were assembled on the second floor of the Nitzah House in Lod, when the query came before them: ``Which is greater, learning or deed?'' Said Rabbi Tarfon: ``Deed is greater.'' Said Rabbi Akivah: ``Learning is greater.'' Concluded all: ``Learning is greater, because learning brings to deed.''


So it seems that deed, after all, is the more important element of man's mission in life. Learning may take precedence, but only because one must first learn what and how to do.

But several ambiguities remain. Does this mean that there is no intrinsic difference between the views voiced by Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akivah? And if the conclusion reached by the assembled sages is that, ultimately, doing is more important than learning, why express this in a statement that begins with the words ``Learning is greater''? Would it not have been more appropriate to say ``Deed is greater, because learning brings to deed''?

Growth and Abnegation

Learning involves the development and perfection of self, while doing entails the servitude of self to the task at hand. So the question presented to the sages assembled in Lod can be phrased in different terms: What should a person strive for---personal growth, or the abnegation of self in commitment to a higher ideal? Why was man created---that he better himself or that he serve his Creator?

Man was created to serve his Creator. But in order to do he must learn, and in order to serve he must grow. For not only was man created to serve the Almighty, but everything about him exists only to this end. If man has a mind, a heart, a will, and a faculty for pleasure, then the service desired of him is not a robot-like servitude of the hands and feet. To properly serve G‑d he must grow to understand, experience, desire and enjoy his mission in life.

This explains the statement ``Learning is greater, because learning brings to deed.'' Indeed, the underlying truth of life is that man exists only to serve his Creator. This is the foundation and purpose of all. But, as the chassidic saying goes, ``the foundation is buried in the ground''---the nature of foundations are that they are submerged and invisible. What is the visible edifice of life? Learning, growth, self-improvement---a endeavor which underscores and develops, rather than abnegates, a person's ego, ambitions, faculties and talents. So although our ultimate commitment is to deed and self-nullification, the ``greater'' and more emphasized element of our lives—at least in the initial stages of our spiritual development—is the quest for perfection.

Such is the nature of the quest for perfection, which is the prominent feature of our currently defined lives. But what about the individual who does attains this perfection? For him, the very opposite is true. The dominant element of his life is ``deed,'' the selfless service of the Almighty. True, his ``self'' and its various faculties are also employed—he serves his Creator also with his mind and heart—but these are completely ``submerged'' in his doing. What he understands and experiences is not the issue, only that ultimate purpose of creation be realized. His life affirms the unequivocal supremacy of deed voiced by Rabbi Tarfon: his ego is utterly nullified before the imperative to do and serve.

These two scenarios express not only the difference between the self-perfecting and the self-perfected individual, they also describe two distinct stages in the development of humanity and creation as a whole. To our currently imperfect existence applies the Rabbi Akivah's statement that ``Learning is greater.'' True, we know that this is not an end in itself, that the purpose of ``learning'' is that it ``bring to deed''; but personal growth remains at the fore of our life's work.

In the era of Moshiach, however, when evil and ignorance will cease and our potential for goodness and perfection will be realized, the deed will be paramount. This is not to say that man will become a mindless robot; on the contrary, our understanding and appreciation of the Divine reality will be infinitely greater than anything conceivable today. Yet we will not relate to our intellectual and emotional experiences as ``achievements.'' Everything will be an act of Divine service, but another way in which to realize G‑d's will.

The Model Home

Two structures, the first built largely of wood and the second primarily of stone, embody these two phases of man's mission in life

``They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell within them.'' According to chassidic teaching, these words express the Divine purpose in creation: G‑d created the world because, in the words of the Midrash ``He desired a dwelling within the lowly (i.e, the physical) existence.''

On the individual level, this is achieved when man performs the mitzvos of the Torah, utilizing the various elements of the physical world to serve the Almighty. Physical money is given to charity. Grain is made into matzoh for Passover, animal hide into tefillin, wool into tzitzit, and so on. Furthermore, when a person devotes his life to the fulfillment of the mitzvos, everything which supports this life—the food he eats, the clothes he wears, the energy he consumes—is involved in the realization of the supernal goal.

Thus the physical reality becomes a ``dwelling'' for G‑d. Instead of the ``lowliness'' which previously defined its relationship to its Creator (for the physical world, with its apparent independence and concreteness of being, can be the greatest concealment of the Divine truth), it is now transformed into a ``home'' for G‑d, an environment that serves His will and expresses His all-pervading reality.

On the communal level, the Jewish people built a ``home'' for G‑d in the form of the Sanctuary. By the command of G‑d, various materials were used to construct an edifice to serve as the focus of G‑d's manifest presence in the physical world. Although G‑d is equally everywhere, this was the place where He chose to visibly permeate the material; this was a ``dwelling'' that represented the ultimate function of every physical thing.

And just as there exist two phases in the life's work of man, so it is with the collective expression of humanity's mission, the Sanctuary.

First there was the Mishkan, the temporary, portable Sanctuary that the Jewish people carried in their wanderings through the Sinai Desert. Then, when Israel had finally settled and established themselves in the Holy Land, the permanent Bait Hamikdash was built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The difference can be seen in the construction. The Mishkan had an earthen floor, atop which were placed heavy foundation-sockets of silver. Into these sockets were set the wall sections, made of gold-covered ceder wood. The roof consisted of three layers of tent-coverings: tapestries of wool and goat-hair, and a covering of animal hides.

The Beit Hamikdash, however, was made almost entirely of earth and stone, from its marble floor to its mortar roof. The Beit Hamikdash did include some wood, in the form of support beams, but these were embedded within the stone and cement. In fact, it was specifically forbidden for even the smallest bit of wood to protrude and be visible.

Thus, the Mishkan included both lifeless minerals (earth, silver, etc.) and the products of plant and animal life: the ground and foundation being of the former, the walls and roof consisting primarily of the latter. On the other hand, the Beis Hamikdosh was built almost exclusively of materials of inanimate origin; the little wood it did contain was secondary and supportive in function, and completely covered up by the stone.

In the ``small world'' that is man, the inanimate element is our capacity for self-negation (``May my soul be as dust to all'' )---our capacity for devotion, servitude and deed. Plant and animal life are representative of the capacity for growth and development, of our emotional and intellectual life.

Thus in the Mishkan, which represents the initial stages of our mission in life, all these elements are visibly stressed. In fact, the emphasis is on the ``higher'' faculties of man. True, everything rests upon the foundation of servitude to the Divine will, but the edifice which is built on this foundation is the development and realization of human potential.

Ultimately, however, we grow to visibly exemplify the purpose of it all---to serve the Creator. The Beit Hamikdash, too, contains elements of growth, but growth of an utterly egoless nature. A growth that is submerged within self-negation, a growth that is solely an instrument to better fulfill G‑d's will. In the entire edifice, from top to bottom, one sees only the ``stone'' and ``dust'' of deed.

The Historical Rift

Historically, these two aspects of man's mission in life are represented by two different, and often conflicting, parties in the Jewish people.

In the founding family of the Jewish nation, there already existed this dichotomy in the persons of Joseph and Judah. Joseph exemplified learning and self-improvement, while Judah was the epitome of self-sacrifice and self-effacement. Their very names convey their differing natures: Joseph (Yosef in Hebrew) means to ``add-on,'' Judah (Yehudah) to ``submit.''

Initially, Joseph's brothers, led by Judah, rejected him. But then Judah conceded to Joseph, acknowledging not only the necessity of the growth which Joseph represents but also Joseph's more dominant role in the initial stages of Israel's development.

But later in history, the schism between Joseph and Judah reappeared. While Joseph was the uncontested leader of his brothers in Egypt, and descendents of Joseph (Joshua and Gideon) led the people of Israel during the initial stages of their conquest and settlement of the Holy Land, the predominance of Judah was firmly established with the crowning of David as the king of Israel. But a descendent of Joseph, Jeroboam, refused to accept the sovereignty of the royal house of David. After the death of David's son, Solomon, Jeroboam led a mutiny against the Davidic dynasty and established himself as king in the northern part of the Holy Land. For the next three centuries, the Jewish people were split into two kingdoms: Judah in the south, and the northern, Joseph-dominated kingdom of Israel.

The deeper significance of this rift was the unreadiness of the ``personal growth'' element, represented by Joseph, to yield to the ``servitude'' of Judah - as Judah, centuries earlier, had acknowledged the predominance of ``Joseph'' in the initial stages of Israel's mission. In other words, Israel had not yet matured to the ultimate realization of its mission as the utterly selfless service of G‑d. The resolution of this rift is the key for the ultimate redemption of Moshiach and the perfection of the world in the harmonious service of its Creator.

It is therefore most appropriate that on the same Shabbos in which the Torah section of which describes Judah's approach of and reconciliation with Joseph is read, we also read a section of the Prophets which describes the ultimate reunion of the two, this time with Joseph's acknowledgment of Judah's sovereignty and leadership. Here, the basis of Judah's right to the kingship is also emphasized: because he is G‑d's servant, he is the eternal leader of Israel. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

"And the word of G‑d came to me, saying:

"Son of man! Take one stick and write upon it ``For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions''; and take another stick and write upon it ``For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and for the house of Israel his companions.''

"And join them one to the other to make one stick, and they shall become one in your hand...

"Speak to [the people of Israel]: So said the L‑rd G‑d: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations into which they have gone, and I shall gather them from all around and I shall bring them to their land. I will make them into one nation in the land, in the mountains of Israel, and a single king shall be over them all; no longer shall they be two nations, no longer shall they be divided into two kingdoms. Nor shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, their abominations and their sins... I will cleanse them; they shall be My nation, and I will be their G‑d.

"And My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have a single shepherd. They will follow My laws and observe My statutes and do them... and David My servant shall be their prince for ever."