This is the first in a series of musings on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which is traditionally studied by Jews in the days between Passover and Shavuot. Let me know what you think, and please spread the word if you like what you read!
“Al Shlosha devarim, haolam omeid: al haTorah, v’alha-avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim”
“The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and deeds of kindness.” (Pirkei Avot 1:2)
“Why?” she asks impertinently. What’s the big deal?
What do the sages mean by the world standing on Torah? Observant Jews read/listen/chant the words of the Torah several times a week (Monday, Thursday and twice on Saturday). Will the world fall apart if that doesn’t happen? she asks (rather sarcastically). Will lighting bolts strike? Will the sky fall? Will frogs leap out of streams and locusts imperil our fields and forests?
“Well,” responds the patient (oh, so patient) teacher. “Maybe indirectly,” she ventures.
Torah is our guide. Indeed, the world won’t fall apart if we fail to read the words hand written into the ancient scrolls with perfect melody and meaning. But bad things will happen if the lessons found within and beneath and between the words are ignored.
There is much in Torah that seems superfluous, archaic, and downright nasty, no question! But there is within the ancient texts so much to learn — and understand. Golden rules (“treat your neighbor as you would have yourself treated”), wise advice (“don’t put stumbling blocks — metaphorical or literal — in front of someone who cannot see, perceive, or understand”), practical law (“Don’t steal!” “Don’t murder!” “Don’t covet what ain’t yours!”) fill the text and subtext of the Torah. That’s why we read it so often and return to it every year. It’s not the words–it’s what those words say to us; how they speak to us and why. The world stands on Torah — a simple notion, but not simplistic. It’s as deep as it gets. “Enlighten our eyes to Torah” means to open our selves up to the obvious and not-so-obvious lessons that speak directly to our humanity. Someone once said that all you need to know in Torah can be said in three words: “Be a mensch!” (or in Yiddish, “Zai a mensch!) Be a “good person.” Even the great Rabbi Hillel of the Talmud summarized (while standing on one foot, incidentally) Torah teaching as: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else! All the rest is commentary.” Spark Notes has nothing on Rabbi Hillel!
“OK, fine. I get it. But why,” continues our impertinent student, “does the world stand on ‘the service of God?’ Does that mean the world will fall apart if I don’t go to temple every week?”
The wise teacher interrupts: Well, technically it’s every day — three times a day that you’re supposed to go to services. But I get your point. And no, I don’t think that’s what the sages were trying to tell us through the ages and generations since this was written down. “Avodah,” which is the Hebrew word for “service of God” is also the word for “work.” You know, get up in the morning, shower, Starbucks and get thee to your office (or shop, or school, or whatever it is you do).
I would interpret Avodah as putting the words and ideas learned from Torah into action. Knowing that you’re supposed to be a mensch is a lot different than actually being one. So Avodah follows directly from Torah (which, actually, by the way, means “teaching”). So you take what you’ve gleaned from the words in the Torah and put them into action. So Torah without followup is pretty meaningless and can definitely lead to mass destruction of the Earth. But it won’t be God that does it. It would be us–literally.
“Aha!” says our impertinent student. “Now I get it.” As for the third one: “acts of loving-kindness,” I get that one. You’re supposed to be nice. Do nice things for people. But why would that be #3 on the list of important things to do, you know, if you don’t want the world to collapse around us?
If we don’t do those acts of loving-kindness, who will? And without people who do good (everyone, not just the usual do-gooder suspects), a lot of people will die of starvation, persecution, or just plain old neglect. That goes back to the stumbling block thing in the Torah. It’s not good enough to avoid placing stumbling blocks, it is also our responsibility to remove them whenever we see them. Or at least give a hand to help people around them, so they don’t trip or worse.
So, you see, the world does stand on those three things, because without them, Earth would be a pretty terrible place, and there are plenty of places on earth who ignore this simple bit of sage-ly advice.
More Pirkei Avot tomorrow. For now, happy 11th Day of the Omer!