This section of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, concerns the things that are necessary to maintain the world.
Simon The Righteous said, “The world stands on three things-The Torah, Service of God, and Acts of Loving Kindness.
א,ב שמעון הצדיק היה משיירי אנשי כנסת הגדולה. הוא היה אומר, על שלושה דברים העולם עומד—על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים
Let’s take a look at this section by section, and then all together. Rabbi Simon lived int the 3rd century BCE. As you can see by his name he was not a rabbi, because rabbis did not yet exist. However, his teachings, and this one in particularly led to the development of rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. He was in fact a priest, a kohen, in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, which still stood in his lifetime. He was also a witness to the corruption a priesthood based religion can bring. As I have explained in a previous posting, priesthoods are based on hoarding knowledge, not sharing it with the people. In addition, priesthoods are inherited, not earned. Simon and his colleagues prepare the way to a meritocracy, religious leadership available to everyone regardless of birth. It was Simon’s vision that allows Judaism to survive after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
The first thing he says that is necessary for the world to survive is the Torah. Notice he does not say the Jewish world, but the entire world. He believed that the Torah was God’s blueprint for creation. This does not mean that he thought that everyone should be Jewish, but rather that the ethics that the Torah brought to the world would prevent the world from returning to chaos. It was the Torah that first introduced the idea that all people were created in God’s image, not just an elite few.
Torah was also accessible now to all who wanted to learn. People would only be limited by their own perseverance, not their background.
The second thing he includes is Service of God. The hebrew word used here, avodah, really means Temple service and sacrifice. Pirkei Avot is published after the destruction of the Temple so it seems strange to include it now. Our sages, though, said that prayer is Service of the Heart, and could substitute for sacrifice. This is why Jewish prayers services are timed the way they are. They correspond to the times of the day that sacrifices had been offered.
Finally, he talks about acts of lovingkindness. This is not charity, but going above and beyond the kindness that we have to show to others. It is extending ourselves more than necessary. It is important to note that doing enough is not considered enough when it comes to kindness. These acts also do not require money. They can be done by anyone, rich or poor, young or old. Sometimes just a kind word is exactly what is needed. It is powerful to me that Simon made acts of kindness equal to the Torah and ritual service of God.
Let’s look at how these ideas are connected to each other. Each represents an aspect of being a complete human being. Torah is about the head, ritual is about the body, and acts of lovingkindness are about the heart. Simon is uniting our emotional, intellectual and physical selves into a healthy whole. Simon recognizes, though, that we each have different strengths. Some are more scholarly, others more athletics and others more emotionally connected. We can each make our own contribution in our own way. As long as we cherish each others gifts, instead of believing in the superiority of our own, the world will long endure.
One Reply to “Pirkei Avot: The Ethics of our Ancestors Chapter One Section Two”
I love this. Thank your for your wise words. Shabbat Shalom,