Photo Credit: Jewish Press

He (Shimon HaTzadik) would say, on three things the world stands, on Torah, on avodah and on gemilut chassadim (Avot 1:2).



An Existential Opening

After the first Mishnah of Masechet Avot concludes its description of those who relayed the Torah from generation to generation by mentioning the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), mishnah bet presents a foundational statement of Shimon HaTzadik, who was “mi’shyarei Knesset Hagedolah (of the last members of the Great Assembly).”

Shimon HaTzadik’s statement is critical for our general worldview. As opposed to most of Masechet Avot, which consists of directives for how to best live our lives, Shimon HaTzadik relates to the more basic question of why the world exists. He asserts that the world stands on three pillars; it exists to facilitate Torah (learning), avodah (service of Hashem), and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness).

According to Shimon HaTzadik, the world’s sustenance hinges upon human action and behavior. Because the world was created to offer humanity the opportunity to live meaningful lives, its continued existence hinges on us doing so.

The Mishnah’s mefarshim see the pillars as relating to different categories humans ought to develop. The Tiferet Yisrael saw the three as representative of the types of relationships we need to develop. Torah learning is how we enrich ourselves, avodah is how we ought to relate to Hashem, and gemilut chasadim reflects our healthy relationship with other people (Rav Kook saw Torah as our entry into Hashem’s world to study His wisdom and tefillah as our bringing the issues of our world to Hashem).

The Rambam saw the three pillars as modes of personal development. Torah develops our intellectual ability, gemilut chasadim our character, and avodah our observance. Similarly, Rabbeinu Bachaye sees Torah learning as employing the mouth, avodah (prayer) as the work of the heart, and gemilut chasadim as the realm of action. Alternatively, The Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’avodah) explains that Torah is how we use our sechel (intellect), avodah is how we use our regesh (emotions), and gemilut chasadim is a form of our ma’asim (actions).

Both interpretations agree that the pillars are important not just for the world, but also for ourselves. They teach us not just what the world needs to exist, but also what our existence is meant to be about. The world cannot learn, daven, or do acts of chessed, on its own. Its purpose is realized through our actions.


Pillars Of Diversity

The existence of multiple pillars helps us understand human diversity and the unique aspects of each of our identities and missions. The Alshich (Vayikra 9) uses our Mishnah to explain why some people are drawn to Torah, others feel an affinity for tzedakah, while others focus on gemilut chasadim. People are created with different affinities because the world needs all these types.

Rashb”i (Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai) and the Chassidim Haroshinim were excellent examples of this phenomenon. The Gemara (Shabbat 11a) tells us that Rashb”i and his colleagues focused almost exclusively on Torah learning. They were excused from the responsibility to pray (the central form of avodah in their and our time). The Chassidim Harishonim were a stark contrast. They would spend nine hours – the vast majority of each day – praying (Berachot 30b).

Which approach is right – Rashb”i’s, Rav Yochanan’s, or something in between? How could there be such a stark contrast?

Shimon HaTzadik’s teaching helps us answer this question. The world’s three pillars symbolize its multiple purposes. In order to fulfill each of these different goals, Hashem creates people who are drawn to each of them. Some are drawn to Torah, others to avodah, and a third group to gemilut chasadim.


Shalom As Harmonic Integration

The Akeidat Yitzchak (Nasso, Sha’ar 74) and Rav Kook use this idea to explain the deeper meaning of shalom. The first perek of Avot concludes with a statement of Rashba”g (Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel) that he patterned after the earlier statement of Shimon HaTzadik.

Like Shimon HaTzadik, Rashba”g describes three factors that the world’s existence depends upon. As opposed to Shimon HaTzadik who focused on the world’s purpose, Rashbag identifies the three elements that sustain the world’s healthy soceity – din (justice), emet (truth), and shalom (Avot 1:18).

What does Rashbag mean by shalom? The Akeidat Yitzchak explains that shalom is more than just the lack of hostility. It refers, rather, to people being able to work together in order to accomplish shared common goals.

Rav Kook (Orot Hateshuvah, Ma’amar Shalom Bashem) took this idea a step further and defined shalom as people appreciating and finding an appropriate role for each other’s strengths. The example he gave sharpens the connection between Rashba”g’s statement and that of Shimon HaTzadik. Shalom, explains Rav Kook, is the ability of those involved in chessed to appreciate and find the appropriate place for those involved in avodah and for the two of them to be able to integrate themselves with those focused upon Torah learning. The existence of people focused upon different pillars necessitates shalom – our successful integration of and with one another.

Our recognition of the world’s multiple pillars should help us appreciate the existential importance of the efforts of those different from ourselves and should inspire us to seek to integrate our efforts with theirs.


Internal Integration

Rav Kook (Mussar Avicha, p.39) applied this integrative perspective to our internal mindset as well. People should appreciate the importance of their own involvement (at least on some level) in all aspects of the world’s purpose.

The Gemara (Shabbat 10a) tells us that Rava criticized Rav Hamnuna for devoting an inordinate amount of time to prayer. Rava felt that Rav Hamnuna was focused on praying for his needs in this world, as opposed to earning his place in the next one through Torah learning. The Gemara explains that Rav Hamnuna’s opinion was that “zman tefillah lachud u’zman torah lachud (both tefillah and Torah have their appropriate time).”

Rav Kook understood Rav Hamnuna’s response as reflective of a broad principle. He explains that the pasuk of “b’chol derachecha da’eihu (know Hashem in all your pursuits)” teaches us to appreciate and focus upon the avenue of avodat Hashem we are presently involved in without concern for other forms of worship. Similarly, the Chovot Halevavot quotes someone (with bitachon) who exclaimed that he “never got up in the morning involved in one important thing while desiring and thinking about something else.”

Rav Kook uses Shimon HaTzadik’s pillars to present this idea. Though Torah learning may be the most important activity, when one is involved in tefillah, he should not think about the need to learn Torah (or perform gemilut chasadim). Similarly, when involved in Torah learning, one should not be distracted by the need to daven or do chessed. Z’man tefillah lachud u’zman Torah lachud.

May Shimon HaTzadik’s teaching focus us on accomplishing what the world and we were created for.

May the multiple pillars help us appreciate the importance of those whose focus differs from our own and help us develop all the necessary aspects of our own avodah and personalities.

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Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and Educational Director of World Mizrachi - RZA. He lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.