Trees, Dreams, and the Morning After

While 2020 continues 2020-ing all around us, one practice I’ve found extremely comforting is SVARA’S daily drop-in mishnah collective. I’ve been a regular attendee since May and having 30 minutes, together, to learn a morsel of Pirkei Avot has been such a powerful anchor in my life. We finished chapter 3 last week, and there’s a portion of the penultimate mishnah, mishnah 17, that I’ve been thinking about for a while. In this section, Rabbi Elezar ben Azariah asks us to consider two types of people: a person whose “wisdom exceeds their deeds,” and a person whose “deeds exceed their wisdom.”

He goes on to say that the former may be compared to, “a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few, so that when the wind comes, it uproots it and overturns it,” and the latter compared to, “a tree whose branches are few but roots are many, so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow upon it, they cannot move it out of its place.”[1]

While discussing the latter person in a chevruta breakout room, one question that surfaced was which came first, deeds or wisdom? As queer people, we walk through the world in certain ways because of our lived experiences, because of our embodied wisdom. Someone can certainly study something and learn everything about it, but until you live it, until it’s in your bones, can it really be called wisdom? Sometimes the things you intrinsically know will appear when you least expect them to…like when you’re minding your own business trying to write a drash on parsha vayishlach for a class.

Someone can certainly study something and learn everything about it, but until you live it, until it’s in your bones, can it really be called wisdom?

Two weeks ago, I had a dream that brought me back to the religious community I left circa 2006-2007. I was in a church building, their church building, in a banquet hall having a casual conversation with a cantor friend. I don’t remember the exact contents of the conversation, but it was light, laughter-laden, and we seemed to be having a good time. When I woke up, though, I was horrified by the whole thing. In general, I try to avoid thinking about my time in that community, as there are elements of it that are still quite painful to examine. A few days later, however, lyrics from a song I was introduced to while a part of this community resurfaced in my mind:

“I wanna see miracles, to see the world change

Wrestled the angel for more than a name

For more than a feeling, for more than a cause”[2]

In terms of the drash I was writing, both of these inconvenient reminders of my past were shockingly relevant and dare I say, inspirational. The rabbi teaching my class suggested that we focus on the incident of Jacob wrestling with the angel. I used that incident, as well as other examples from parsha toldot, to support the idea that Jacob is an early biblical representation of a queer person. Queer as in surviving a world that was not meant for him. Queer as in having the audacity to exist, while constantly being compared to a standard he couldn’t possibly meet.

That was the drash I needed to write and it may not have been possible without the gentle reminders from my subconscious mind about what I had been through as a queer person trying to thrive in this world.

When I come back to this chicken and egg question, “Which came first, wisdom or deeds?” My answer is simply, “yes.” In Hebrew, the word for wisdom comes from a root that means to be wise or to know. This suggests to me that wisdom doesn’t come from stasis, it is what you know, deeply, whether by study or experience, made visible by your actions in the world. So as we continue to muddle through this season, where the days are short and the nights are long, may we all remember that there is wisdom in all of our parts, even those parts we’d rather keep in the dark.

[1] Pirkei Avot 3:17

[2] Switchfoot. “Twenty-Four.” The Beautiful Letdown, Columbia/Sony BMG, 2003.

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