The World Stands on Three Things | The First Chapter, Second Mishna of Pirkei Avot
By Rabbi David Weissman
The First Chapter, Second Mishna of Pirkei Avot states:
Shimon the Righteous was one of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things – upon Torah, upon Divine service, and upon acts of loving kindness.
There are many questions that can be asked regarding this Mishna. We will attempt to address two.
First, Pirkei Avot is a collection of ethical teachings. Shimon the Righteous seems to be teaching us a metaphysical fact, not an ethical instruction. Why is this statement here? What does this statement teach us about ethical conduct?
Second, what does Shimon the Righteous mean by the word “stand”?
The answer is as follows:
Shimon the Righteous is teaching us here that the entire universe only exists in order that mankind engage in these three modes of conduct – Torah study, Divine service such as sacrifices and prayer, and acts of loving kindness towards fellow human beings.
Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura in his commentary on this Mishna quotes the Sages that there was a condition in creation that if Israel did not accept the Torah at Sinai the universe would return to Chaos. Therefore, the world “stands” on Torah.
Rabbi Obadiya continues to explain that the Sages of blessed memory say elsewhere that if not for the sacrifices the world could not be sustained.
Finally, the third purpose for the creation of the world was in order that people would do acts of loving kindness to each other as Scripture states “the world will be built through kindness”.
Now, we understand the meaning of the word “stands” in the context of the Mishna here to connote that these three mighty pillars are the foundations upon which creation rests, without which the entire system of creation would collapse.
This is not a truth that can be seen with the naked eye. It is a metaphysical reality revealed to the prophets and passed down to the Sages, as the referenced verses demonstrate.
Shimon the Righteous understood to what extent values influence a person’s behavior and that is why he used to say this statement to his disciples as a way to instruct, and inspire, ethical conduct.
A person who truly understands and internalizes the fact that the world is sustained with Torah study, sacrifices, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness, will not be deterred from engaging in them for any reason; no obstacle will hinder them.
He meditates on the idea that if the world is sustained upon these principles then these things must transcend the created world and be anchored in a higher divine reality. Nothing could be more life-giving and invigorating.
Shimon the Righteous knew that there are times when a person may hear a voice inside trying to discourage him or her from seeking G-d and fulfilling the commandments saying: what is the point of your divine service? You are infinitesimally small compared to the universe; how much more so compared to G-d. Why would the Creator really care about what one flesh-and-blood person says or does?
Shimon teaches us here that we could not be more wrong to have such thoughts. One act of kindness, one word of Torah, is more valuable than the whole world! Therefore, a person should never be discouraged. As long as a person breathes he, or she, has the opportunity to create the infinite, and to bring down G-dly light into the world, breathing new life into the cold earth.
Shimon the Righteous implores us to do more and more good deeds and never to be satisfied because ” it is more precious than gold”.
All these three categories of righteousness are accessible to the Ben Noah. The Ben Noah is permitted, and should, study the seven Noahide laws and its numerous offshoots and branches. A Ben Noah who occupies himself with Torah raises himself up and is beloved by G-d. Rabbi Meir says a Ben Noah who occupies himself with Torah is higher than the High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies.
Non-Jews are permitted to offer voluntary sacrifices in the Temple, and both Adam and Noah offered up sacrifices to G-d. Surely, prayer is the highest form of testimony to the belief that there is only One who can provide our needs and save us from harm; this is the greatest possible negation of idolatry.
Finally, acts of loving kindness and charity, affirmatively protest and negate theft and adultery, two important commandments to the children of Noah. Through giving of charity a Ben Noah declares that his possessions were given to him by G-d in order to disburse them appropriately to sustain himself and his family to serve G-d and to provide to G-d’s children – the poor, the orphan, and the widow.
In truth, no human being can be whole and complete without being engaged in these three pillars of life that coincide with the three fundamental emotive traits of man – love, discipline, and measured compassion. May we merit to busy ourselves with Torah, prayer, and good deeds until the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.