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Three Pillars - Pirke Avot 1:2

May 9, 2009 | by Howard Witkin

A chair needs three legs to stand. Our spiritual lives also have a 3-part balance.

Shimon HaTzaddik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly.
He used to say:
On three things the world stands.
On Torah,
On service [of God],
And on acts of human kindness.

The World In Balance

Why should the world stand on three things rather than two or four or some other arbitrary number? We could easily list dozens of critical needs, obligations and aspects of life. Why does Shimon HaTzaddik stop at three, and why these three?

Our Mishnah is zeroing in on a fundamental truth about our place in the cosmos. We are not alone, and life is not ours alone. We live in a world where we are compelled to act, react and interact with others.

We have three primary relationships in life. We have to learn to live with ourself, with God, and with others.

Human beings interact with the world on three levels: thought, speech and action. Each of these three is the key to the three basic relationships: You act on yourself through thought or will. You interact with God through speech. And you relate to others through actions.

In our quest to perfect ourselves, we need to also lift others and lift our relationship with God. Success and balance in all three is required to truly grow in this world.

Throughout Torah literature, you will find this 3-part balance reflected. In the Rosh Hashana Machzor (prayer book), a central prayer declares:

"Teshuva (Return), Tefillah, (Prayer) and Tzedakah (Righteousness) avert the bad decree."

This prayer is focusing on the 3-part balance offered in our Mishnah, and presents concrete tools for working on the three primary relationships. Let's examine them one by one.

Teshuva - Return

Teshuva literally means "return" ― to return to the purity within yourself. Teshuva is the ultimate act of self-recognition, and the primary tool in self-perfection.

Teshuva is an intellectual process. It requires you to identify your obligations, understand your actions, recognize the consequences of your choices, and resolve to exercise your will over your future actions.

Tefillah - Prayer

The word Tefillah, or prayer, derives from the Hebrew word "to focus." We focus on what is truly significant and important. What is the "service" that God demands of us? Clarity and focus.

The Amidah is the standard, central prayer of every Jewish prayer service. It is structured to include three sections: A set of opening paragraphs where we recognize before whom you stand, a set of closing remarks where we express gratitude, and a central section targeted at the special needs or purpose of the day.

As the Ramchal describes, the gifts of life are more precious if you realize that you want them. Prayer helps us connect to God by helping us focus on Who He is, what we need, and the gratitude we should feel for all He has already given us.

Prayer is designed to help focus your will.

p class=ArticleText>The purpose of prayer is not to mumble incoherently, nor is it to request favors from a Celestial Busboy. Prayer is designed to help focus your will. It is connecting to God through speech.

Jews pray three times a day. We stop every morning and ask: "What am I trying to accomplish with my life, and what am I going to do today to make progress?" In the afternoon, we stop and ask: "How am I doing today?" And every evening we reflect: "How did I succeed today?"

The members of the Great Assembly fixed the specific language of prayer ― not to limit us, but to help guide us toward what we should want out of life.

Judaism does not believe in a remote deity or Celestial Watchmaker Who created the universe and walked away. We believe in an engaged God Who is the source of all goodness and blessing in the world. At every instant, God is aware of who you are, what you are working on, and what you require. You focus your will, and God responds.

The Sages taught that prayer should be spoken. "Speech" is the will manifested in reality. "Thought" is ephemeral and slippery. You can change your mind, but words bring ideas into concrete reality. Talk to God. It will make the relationship more real.

Tzedakah - Righteousness

The word tzedakah is often translated as "charity." It is anything but. Tzedakah is "righteousness" ― doing the right thing.

How are you supposed to react to other people? Ayn Rand and the Objectivists held that the needs of others create no obligation on your part. This is a very un-Jewish idea. Torah demands that we be other-centered.

We are required to look at other human beings, try to understand what they are lacking, and endeavor to help them. One of the worst mistakes is to turn a blind eye and become insensitive to the suffering of others.

At its highest level, tzedakah requires us to "understand" another human being: Who is he? What does he lack? How can I help him fulfill his role in life? Then I need to act.

Pillars Of Our Mishnah

In our Mishnah, Shimon HaTzaddik declares that the world stands on three things: Torah, service [of God], and acts of human kindness.

The first pillar of creation is knowing your identity and your mission. Torah is God's instructions for living. It provides the understanding to help refine our nature and perfect ourselves. It is the means by which we learn what the world is about, and what our obligations are.

Avodah, the second pillar, is service of God.

What does it mean to serve God? And why would He want us to do so? An all-powerful, perfect being has no lack for us to fill, and by definition has no need of our obeisance. So why does He want us to "serve" Him?

Clearly, service of God is for our benefit, not His.

Three activities are commonly referred to as "serving God": prayer, mitzvot and the Temple service. The Temple service was the ultimate act of harnessing the physical, and converting it to serve the spiritual ― an open and concrete demonstration of the physical world's subordination to our will.

Mitzvot are physical actions imbued with spiritual significance. Every mitzvah involves an opportunity to use our free will to transcend visceral drives. Mitzvot are the levers which allow actions in a physical universe to have impact on a spiritual soul. Mitzvot are the embodiment of the soul harnessing the power of physicality and the body.

Prayer, as discussed above, is the process of focusing one's will directly on ultimate goals ― e.g. self perfection, a relationship with others, and a relationship with God.

God created us to impart these ultimate pleasures. The extent to which we seek to elevate our world and allow the spiritual to transcend the physical, is the extent to which we can be said to "serve God." The second pillar of creation is, therefore, to fulfill your mission.

Chesed, the third pillar, is a commitment to performing acts of human kindness. Life is not a zero sum game. The success of others is your boon not your bane.

God created us in order to give us good. The world was designed such that the greatest good is to give to others and to be other-centered. A person totally focussed on himself and oblivious to the needs of others has, almost by definition, failed in the first two pillars. The third pillar of creation is to know that you are not in it alone. You are your brother's keeper.

Pillars of Jewish History

Each of the three patriarchs excelled in a different pillar. Abraham was the paragon of kindness to others. He set up his camp at the crossroads of the world ― where the main east-west road met the main north-south road from Egypt to Mesopotamia ― and offered food and shelter to all who passed by.

Isaac was so dedicated to serving God, and so strong in his ability to subordinate physical drives to his conscious will, that he was even prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice, if God would so desire.

Jacob was the scholar, the embodiment of Torah. He spent 14 years learning in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, and achieved the Torah level of Truth.

When we assimilate these three primary values, we have achieved human balance. For just as a chair or table needs three legs to stand, so too does our world ― both the micro-world of ourselves, and the macro-world of community and nations. So taught Shimon HaTzaddik.


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