The Three Pillars of the World
Pirkei Avot 1:2 teaches: “Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service/worship, and the practice of acts of piety/loving kindness.”
I tend to see a globe-like world standing on these three essential pillars. Each one is necessary or the world will spin out of orbit and crash into the sun. Throughout my life, I have wondered if there was one pillar that was more important than the others. My thoughts on each of these three pillars have evolved over time. All three can provide us with ways to engage and encounter God or the eternal.
What is meant by Torah? Is it the law itself or is it the study of Torah? To me, the Torah is a guide to a meaningful life and is broader than just the five books themselves. Torah provides an infinite number of topics that encourage consideration and demand discussion with others. The communal aspect of Torah study is itself critical to the process. Through Torah study, we can discover so much about ourselves and can access God.
Avodah, which I think is what Shimon meant as Temple worship, literally means worship or work. Worship was seen as the most direct way to engage with God. Initially, we had a more primitive form of worship that was centered on offering sacrifices to God. After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis developed our prayer system to replace Temple worship. Over time, prayer developed to help us connect with God spiritually. When we pray as a community, we help to raise our spiritual selves in a way that we might not be able to do when we pray alone. At camp, I feel the power of communal prayer.
To me, the third pillar – G’milut Hasidim, or acts of loving kindness – is the most important. I think that we develop the closest connection to God when we help others who don’t have the ability to help us in return. This may be rooted in the fact that everyone is created in God’s image and that lifting others up makes us feel somewhat God-like. Perhaps this is selfish, but helping others also just makes me feel good.
I think that all three pillars are important for humanity to exist. Torah, Avodah and G’milut Hasidim are all necessary because each person will be impacted differently by each pillar. It is Judaism’s way of providing us with differentiated ways of learning and living. I hope this summer our camp community will have opportunities to experience all three. Shabbat Shalom.