Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

Avot 1:2

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: Torah, worship, and the practice of acts of kindness.

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What do you think of when you hear the term psychology? Does your mind go straight to an image of a therapist’s couch? When I have informally polled the students in the introductory psychology courses I have taught, the reason many signed up for the course is to find out more about how therapy works. They are usually in for a surprise when they discover that the entire enterprise of mental illness and psychological therapies, comprise two out of the fourteen units. The field of psychology is vast, covering almost anything and everything. The area under the umbrella of psychology is so large that it includes the study of many broad areas of our personal and public lives including how we eat, drink, sleep, work, learn, shop, vote, and invest, just to name a few. One could argue that in a certain sense everything falls under the domain of psychology.

So, what is psychology? In its most basic form, psychology is the study of the mind (thought and emotion) and behavior. With this definition, we see that the discipline of psychology really does include almost anything human related under the sun, because what doesn’t incorporate an element of how we think, feel, or act?

While Torah is obviously not constrained or limited to the discipline of psychology, if we think of psychology as how we think, feel, and act, there is no question that the Torah is heavily concerned with psychology. As one illustrative example, the world, we are told in this mishna, is supported by three things; Torah, avodah (worship) and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (Netivot Shalom, Vayikra, p. 154) suggests that each one of these pillars represents one of the three essential parts of a human being. Torah represents the sechel, meaning intelligence or thought processes. Avodah symbolizes worship through our emotional lives. Chesed is paradigmatic of actions. The world rests on the religious manifestations of the three pillars of what it means to be human: thoughts, emotions and behaviors. In other words, the world depends on our ability to spiritualize our psychology.

Viewed from a different perspective, this mishna introduces another psychological structure that could help us in the process of growth, namely, our relationships. Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, in his commentary on the Mishna, Tiferet Yisrael, suggests that Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim represent three paradigms of relationships that we are charged to improve: between man and G-d, between man and his fellow man, and between man and himself. Torah represents wisdom, which Rabbi Lipschitz understands as striving for perfection of the self. Worship corresponds to doing mitzvot, a form of improving our relationship with G-d. Acts of kindness exemplify our relationship with other people, and our charge to be kind and helpful. Working on these three areas, he concludes, will pay dividends in this world and the next. To a large extent, the teachings in Pirkei Avot can be seen to fall within one of these categories; they teach us tools for self-improvement, guide us for developing optimal relationships with others, and provide inspiration for improving our connection to G-d.

Though we have identified three separate paradigms, they are not independent silos; all three interact with each other in a dynamic, intertwined fashion. The study of Torah should include elements of worship and kindness; worship should be informed by study and kindness; and kindness should be informed by study and worship. Similarly, our thoughts interplay with emotions and our behavior. They are not completely independent from each other, but each impacts the other in an interdependent way. My thinking impacts the way I feel and act, my behavior affects my thoughts and emotions, and my emotions influence my thoughts and actions. Finally, the same interrelatedness applies to our relationships. The more I improve myself, the better I can improve my relationship with others and with G-d; the more I improve my relationships with others, the better I will be with myself and G-d; and the more I connect to G-d, the better I can develop my relationship with myself and others.

Many commentators use this mishna as a methodological tool to explain or unlock the meaning of many of the subsequent mishnayot. While we may not make explicit reference to this mishna that often in the future, it is important to realize that the triumvirate of Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim provides two important psychological frameworks that will guide our future analysis: Pirkei Avot is heavily concerned with our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and Pirkei Avot wants us to improve our relationships with ourselves, others, and with G-d.

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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School, an instructor at RIETS, and the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. He graduated YU with a BA in psychology, an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli and Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS, before attending St. John’s University for his doctorate in psychology. He has been on the rabbinic staff of Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY since 2010 and practices as a licensed psychologist in NY. His book “Psyched for Torah,” his academic and popular articles, as well as many of his lectures are accessible on his website, www.PsychedForTorah.com.