It’s Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for trees, when we try to glean life-lessons from trees. So here we go.
About 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Eliezer said:
One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, what is he comparable to? To a tree with many branches and few roots; along comes a storm and uproots it, and turns it on its face...But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches, and all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place. (Pirkei Avot)
This remains as true today as ever. Wisdom is overrated and action is underrated. And lest anyone miss the profundity of the message, "wisdom" includes all non-action related ideas, theories and intentions.
Pop culture loves a great speech, especially if it is served with raw emotion and delivers novel points. A man could rise and proclaim ever so eloquently and passionately that there is a homeless crisis our midst and the pundits and critics among us would analyze his poise, his delivery, his timing, his sincerity and his message. And he becomes an overnight sensation, with his picture “on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”
Meanwhile, there's another guy who has no poise, no timing and no message but just wanders the town handing out dry socks to the homeless. And nobody knows.
It might be a little bit of a stretch to apply Rabbi Eliezer's message to the next point, but let's try: What do children see being admired on TV, in magazines, in society at large? Natural strenghts or good, hard choices?
Good looks - natural strengths.
Famous name - natural strengths.
Great voice - natural strengths.
Superb athlete - natural strengths.
Hard work - good, hard choices.
Good character - good, hard choices.
Genuine humility - good, hard choices.
Generosity - good, hard choices.
So now you tell me, which is more glorified?
When truly great performances outsparkle truly great people, and when natural talent outshines hard character development, how can we expect a child to know how to live a good life?
That's where Rabbi Eliezer's message becomes so urgent. Children (and we) must internalize the fact that what's most important in life is usually not attractive, and like in the case of the tree and the roots, invisible. What you do in front of others and what they think of you is important; but what you do in private and what you know about yourself is most important. Fame and notoriety mean nothing in today's world, nothing! Most famous people today are famous for being lucky in life, and so who cares? What can we learn from them? How to get lucky? How to know the right people?
We need to inculcate our children with the attitude that the pursuit of fame is a endless tunnel, a hollow, worthless idol that has wasted people's lives since the dawn of time. Just like wisdom, fame isn't something you actively pursue. Wisdom is something that happens to people who experience mistakes, don't wallow in self-pity, learn from those older than them, outlive agony, toil and work harder than they'd like to and compel themselves to do the right thing. At some point, such people will become wise. And ideally, the same should be said about fame.
Who are the most famous heroes in Jewish tradition? Moses, who abandoned the palace lifestyle to suffer with his enslaved brethren. Rabbi Akiva, who described himself as learning disabled but was turned around by his wife Rachel, who lived alone for 24 years so that he might grow through hard work. Hillel, who froze on a skylight during a blizzard because he was dirt poor but wanted to hear a by-admission-only Torah class. The Maccabees, who defied the popular trends towards paganism and humanism, and were prepared to die to for their loyalty to G-d. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who sacrificed countless hours of his beloved Torah study so that others may do "little" Mitzvot.
These people didn't chase fame; it chased them. Sacrifice, ignorance overcome, unbelievably hard work, dignified poverty, unpopular faith in G-d, valuing the deed of a Mitzvah. Not exactly today's most searched keywords. Yet they are the keys to well-deserved fame.
So that's the deal folks. Mighty trunk, proud branches, gorgeous leaves and world-famous fruit all owe their survival to one thing: roots. Invisible, obscure, unpopular, boring, whatever. Yet without roots, along comes a storm and the tree falls on its face. With roots, all the winds in the world don't faze it.
Tell it to your teenager.