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Pirkei Avot 3:9-10: Abundant Deeds

Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say: One whose fear of sin takes precedence to his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom takes precedence to his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure. He would also say: One whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure. (Pirkei Avot 3:9-10)

“His ‘fear of sin’ is his caution regarding negative commandments and ‘his deeds’ refers to his alacrity in performing the positive commandments.” (Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura)

The relation between wisdom and deed is connected to the difference between the World of Chaos and the World of Rectification. In the World of Chaos, there were abundant lights and few vessels. This caused ‘the breaking of the vessels’ when the few vessels were overwhelmed by the abundant lights. In the World of Rectification, there are few lights and abundant vessels. Hence, this world is stable and enduring. Wisdom is the light and deeds are the vessels. It is specifically when there are abundant deeds that one’s wisdom endures.

In Hebrew, the word for ‘lights’ is אורות, which equals 613 (which also equals chochmah [wisdom] when written in full: חית כף מם הי). In each and every one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah – both positive and negative – the light of the wisdom of the Torah shines. We must understand how the vessels of the deed of performing the mitzvot exceed the lights. After all, every mitzvah contains the light of the Torah, so the Torah naturally takes precedence and is abundant!

When are there abundant deeds? When a person performs them with love and strives to beautify the mitzvah above and beyond the letter of the law. His fear of sin is the caution that he exerts to safeguard the Torah’s commandments. As long as he is performing strictly what he is obligated to do, there is no addition above and beyond the letter of the law, and hence, “His fear of sin precedes his wisdom,” but is not abundant. But when he performs a positive commandment with the attribute of lovingkindness and above and beyond the letter of the law, his deeds exceed his wisdom: The wisdom of the Torah obligates him to do a bit and he does a lot. This is particularly true of the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) – it is worthy to give way above and beyond the letter of the law. Wisdom determines precise amounts and limitations, the amounts prescribed by the Torah and the letter of the law (judgment rooted in the secret of contraction, and is revealed in the gevurah of Atik (the might of the Ancient One). But abundant deeds over and beyond the letter of the law flow from a lofty place called “rav chesed” (abundant lovingkindness) which has no fixed amount at all. It is a revelation of literal eternal light (the light that preceded the contraction and is revealed in the chesed of Atik).

In the realm of the negative commandments, there is also the attribute of lovingkindness and the concept of above and beyond the letter of the law. This can be expressed, for example, in abstinence over and above the letter of the law. “Abstinence brings holiness.” However, abstinence itself stems from a positive commandment: “You shall be holy.”[1] “And you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy.”[2] In practice, abstinence expresses a negative commandment – self-restraint and suppression. It is actually, however, part of a good deed, “abundant deeds.”

The deed above and beyond the letter of the law is particularly connected to the service of return to God. When a person is in the process of returning to God, he has to do many good deeds in general, particularly the service of charity. Hence, by means of his return to God, he fulfills “his deeds exceed his wisdom” – few lights and abundant vessels, as in the World of Rectification. This is the crux of return to God – to rectify the World of Chaos – which in this case is the person’s previous reality that was broken. (God, too, so to speak repented for breaking the World of Chaos when He made the World of Rectification). The numerical allusion: אורות כלים (lights vessels) = תשובה (return to God).

[1] Leviticus 19:2.

[2] Leviticus 11:44.

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