Pirkei Avos 1:2 – The Three Pillars

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It’s customary that during the Shabbos afternoons between Pesach and Shavuos, we engage in the study of Pirkei Avos. To me, this Masechet happens to be one of the most significant  works in all of the various texts that we as a people have. Whether you enjoy learning mishnah or mussar, there’s something for everyone.  Rather than venture to try and explain every Mishnah in the entire tractate, I’m hoping to offer insight over one Mishnah per Perek over the next 6 weeks. The first Mishnah I’d like to discuss is the second Mishnah of Chapter 1.

שמעון הצדיק היה משיירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלושה דברים העולם עומד, על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and acts of loving-kindness.

There is plenty to unpack in this Mishnah. Just to give context, Shimon HaTzaddik served for 40 years as the Kohen Gadol after Ezra. It’s important to note that he is a given a moniker, Shimon HaTzaddik, rather than being referred to simply as Shimon, unlike many of the other commentators mentioned in Avos.

He posits that the world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chasadim.

The Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish people, and serves as our manual for how we conduct our lives. Its transmission to the future generations is fundamental. Service of God is also vital in the life of a Jew. Our connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu through prayer has sustained us for generations. Acts of kindness increase the Presence of the Almighty in the world.

These three things quoted by Shimon HaTzaddik are intrinsically connected as well.

Maharal writes that these three correspond to the Avos. Gemilus Chasadim refers to Avraham Avinu, because of the acts of chesed he perpetrated, especially in the aftermath of his own bris milah. Avodah refers to Yitzchak Avinu because literally about to be offered as a korban to Hashem. He not only excelled in avodas Hashem, he WAS avodas Hashem! Yaakov Avinu embodies Torah as he’s described as an “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim.”

The Gra explains how each of these relate to humankind: Torah is bein adam leatzmo, Avodah is bein adam leMakom, Gemilus Chasadim is bein adam lechaveiro.

Rabbi Shalom MiBaranovich describes this Mishnah as a whole body experience. Torah is connected to the brain because it’s an intellectual pursuit. Avodah is connected to the heart because tefilah is referred to as avodah shebalev. Gemilus Chasadim is connected to the limbs of the body because the arms and legs are running and carrying out the various acts of chesed.

Finally,  Rav Avraham Schorr quotes Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 3) that a person is called an Olam Katan, a miniature world. Similarly, only when a person is heavily engrossed in torah, tefilah, and chesed, will they be truly standing. Only through those three things is a person even alive! 

May we always strive to foster meaning in our lives through limud haTorah, tefillah, and chesed.

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