If people in the modern world were asked ‘What are the three things that a modern society needs in order to function and provide its citizens with what they want’, what would they answer? To the best of our knowledge, such a survey has never been done, so we can speculate on what the answer would be. A fairly good guess would be:
A steady food supply
Enough energy to power the whole system
The Internet and all its spin-offs
These three essentials would likely receive as many votes as anything else out there. What else is there, anyway? Education – it’s important but it’s not top three material. Money – maybe, but it’s really just a means to an end, not an end itself. Medicine and health – unless you’re sick or dying it’s not even top ten. Politics – give me a break. Literature – who reads anymore? There are a whole slew of others that could be considered, but those three seem to be pretty good candidates.
How would somebody in late Biblical times answer this question? It turns out that somebody did. We’ve already encountered him briefly. His name was Simon the Righteous. Not that his parents called him this when he was born, but somehow, in the course of his life, he earned the title. They don’t call just anybody ‘the righteous’, so this guy must have been rather special. Who was he and how did he answer the question?
We really don’t know much about him. In fact, other than the clear description from authoritative rabbinic sources that he was a high priest in the second temple for 40 years and was one of the final members of that illustrious yet mysterious body called the Great Assembly, we know virtually nothing about him at all. We can’t even narrow down the time that he lived to less than a century. One thing we know is that his name was Simon (Shimon in Hebrew). The Talmud records a famous (in Jewish circles) encounter between him and Alexander the Great, thus placing him squarely in the 4th century BCE. He was probably still alive well into the 3rd century BCE. One thing we are aware of concerning him, is his favorite spiritual observation: ‘On three things the world stands – on the Torah, on the divine service, and on acts of kindness.’ (Mishna Avot, 1:2).
‘On three things the world stands’. Does he really mean this, or is it one of those deliberately exaggerated ‘to make a point’ statements? Does he really mean that the world couldn’t survive without Torah, divine service, and kindness? Would we blow ourselves up or wind up in some evolutionary dead end? First off, we can go out on a limb say that by ‘world’ he means the Jewish world at the time, and by extension, perhaps at all times, even now. The Jewish world, what Jews are supposed to be engaged in, their contribution to the rest of the world, is somehow based on these three things. Now that also is a radical statement. Without Torah, divine service, and kindness the Jews will fall apart or become pointless? What about all the Jewish scientists, writers, business people, and everyone else who isn’t spending their life doing those three things? What about Sandy Koufax, Bob Dylan, Golda Meir, and hundreds of other Jews who made their mark on the world without spending any significant amount of time involved in Simon the Righteous’ big three?
Simon the Righteous wasn’t necessarily saying there’s anything wrong with Jewish doctors, lawyers, entertainers, millionaires, or whatever. What he meant was that Judaism, and its essential function in the world, could survive without them. But it couldn’t survive without these three things. If the Torah had never been given, or if it had been totally abandoned, there wouldn’t be any more Jews. Koufax and Dylan might have made it big in their respective fields, or maybe not. But Golda certainly wouldn’t have been the Prime Minister of Israel. It is these three things, and specifically them, that kept the Jews going. Let’s see why.
First, let’s deal with the Torah. We already know the basic contents of the Torah, certainly as it existed in the time of Simon the Righteous. Without going into the whole issue of it being God’s essential message to the world or to the Jews, we can say that this collection of books, in whatever form they have taken through the centuries, has somehow served as the glue that held the Jews together. Its intellectual content was earthshaking for its time. Even today, its incredible depth, when viewed through the eyes of the vast number of Torah scholars interpreting it from multiple angles, is enough to fill more than one lifetime of anyone who chooses to devote his or her mind to it. Its ability to answer the tough questions of life, to delve into issues of faith and fate, to examine the conflict between individual responsibility and national aspirations, to grope through the gray murkiness of the border separating good and evil, to give hope to the hopeless while sparing no words in chastising those who have paved their own path to hell, these are the between-the-lines messages of the stories, parables, and prophecies of the Bible.
Next on the list is divine service. This needs a little clarification. Divine service is understood as referring to the ritual performed for God as prescribed in the Torah. This means sacrifices, wine libations, priestly blessings and the like. Sounds pretty irrelevant, right? Well in Biblical times it was every bit as relevant as Facebook is in the second decade of the 21st century. Most Jews may not really relate to the importance of religious rituals. Even most religious Jews can only give lip service to the frequently voiced prayer to restore the temple and its forms of worship. Suffice it to say that in Biblical times showing one’s devotion to God, in the manner that God commanded, was every bit as important as staying alive is today. They were the foundation of life.
What about the last 2,000 years? What do we have to replace that now that its absence has virtually guaranteed its irrelevance? Divine service has a second meaning that likely paralleled the first meaning even when the temple was functioning. This second meaning is prayer. The word for divine service is avodah, which means ‘work’. Prayer is work. It isn’t some desperate ‘Hail Mary’ at a card table, or griping to some imaginary deity when stuck in traffic. It is genuine spirituality. It is finding your inner self by peeling away the superficial layers that society and the ego have plastered on. It is taking that inner self, feeling it, actively sustaining it through all the random thoughts and emotions, and passively letting it be, despite the temptation to drown it out with ideas and agendas. It may involve begging God for health or food or happiness, but it may not. Those needs are only a means to an end. The end is feeling oneness with God, which happens to be the Jewish version of spirituality. If that’s not relevant, then perhaps it’s time to rethink where we are heading.
Number three on the list is acts of kindness. Does it make the Jewish world go round? Wouldn’t we still be Jews, telling Jewish jokes and cooking Jewish food even if Jews no longer valued random acts of kindness (chesed in Hebrew)? Our vote is no. Aside from the obvious survival benefit of a religious community helping each other out in the face of a frequently glorious and horrid history of unprovoked violent attacks by ‘the other’, and the incessant need to stick together no matter what, there is another more subtle benefit. This is where purpose comes in. Giving of oneself may be a wonderful for the recipients, but it is nothing less than everything for the giver. Very simply put, it makes life worth living. When it is the driving force, the calling card, of an entire religion, it enables that religion to survive any exile, any Inquisition, any pogrom, any holocaust, that the world throws its way. With chesed the Jews are the ‘chosen people’; without it, they are ‘messengers who have forgotten their message’. Take your pick.
The key behind this set of pillars is that it is threefold. A three- legged table can stand when all three legs are there, but if you take away one it cannot. These three biggies come as an essential trio. Torah is the mind, the intellectual and the practical – without it you have no solid moorings. You have spirituality just floating in the air combined with some urge to do kindness that lasts until something more entertaining comes along. Avodah is the soul - the spirituality, the godliness, and the holiness. Without it, the Torah all too easily reverts to intellectual gymnastics and kindness becomes a rote practice. Chesed is the heart. If it's missing the first two are just pie-in-the-sky, ivory tower theory. If you can’t walk the walk, you’re just talking the talk. Chesed is walking the walk, it sharing of yourself with others. The three of these together provide that balance that gave the Jews their purpose in existence. They enabled the Jews to be a true ‘light to the nations’ and a ‘chosen people’. If the Jews died out 2,000 years ago, someone somewhere might have written the equivalent of ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ – but who knows if anybody would have come up with a Jewish-free version of ‘Blowing in the Wind’.
When was the last time you involved your head, your hands, your heart, or your soul in something that actually has more meaning than having fun, making money, or keeping away boredom? How you every actually tried studying Torah on a serious level? Opportunities abound with the Internet putting a world of Torah knowledge at everyone’s fingertips. There are a million and one books out there in English or Hebrew or a dozen other languages. But it requires commitment. It doesn’t work with a one-time fling. Sustained effort is a prerequisite. It’s what made the Jews the People of the Book..
What about real spirituality? When was the last time you really tried to connect with your version of God in an intense personal manner? This does not mean rushing in to ‘catch mincha’ on your way back from work. It means taking serious time off whatever you’re doing and dedicating it to finding God deep inside your soul. Davening is great, but avodah is more. It means patiently waiting until all the other stuff has been set aside and God has been let in. It’s what made the Jews a holy people.
Finally, have you made and sustained a commitment to performing at least one act of kindness a day. This means every day, even when you’re busy, sick, sick of it, or otherwise having a tough day. It can be directed towards anyone and does not require any planning. It needn’t even be noticed. Just do it. It’s what gives the Jews respect in the eyes of the world and enables them to respect themselves.
Put these three things together in your daily schedule and you’ve become a part of the most enduring tribal/religious/national story in the history of the world. They have been the threads in that 4,000 year-old tapestry. They are the three pillars on which the Jewish world endures.
Food for Thought
What would have happened to the Jews if these three things were not deemed essential to Jewish survival? What would have happened to the world?
Aren't confident enough to comment? Send an email to the author about any question pertaining to the essay
- Please keep comments and questions short and to the point.
- Try to keep things civil and overall try to keep the conversations respectful.
- No four letter words.
- No missionizing.
- Site moderators reserve the right to delete your comments if they do not follow the guidlines or are off-topic.
There are no Topics to show. Add a Topic to start a specefic discussion
Date: 08/01/16 at 22:06:51
You mention the collective glue that keeps Jews bound together.
We all suffer the same fate as a group, whether we are religious God fearing or business people, politicians etc...
Most of us don't follow the 3 pillars, our Torah is something else, world affairs, our Avodah is working to pursue material benefits and our Acts of kindness are for ourselves and our families, mostly ourselves.(largely self indulgent)
Question:How do we change our focus in this competitive fast paced world where we run at 100 miles an hour to follow the words of Simon the righteous?
Date: 08/04/16 at 18:20:18
I think you just have to try to always keep G-d and Torah in your mind, especially when making any sort of decision...