He [Shimon HaTzaddik] was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: The world stands upon three things: the Torah, service, and the practice of acts of kindness. (Avot 1:2)
After the first mishnah of Tractate Avot concludes the description of the anshei HaMesorah (those who relayed the Torah from generation to generation) by mentioning the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), the second mishnah presents a foundational statement of Shimon HaTzaddik, who was “of the last members of the Great Assembly.”
Shimon HaTzaddik’s statement is critical for our general worldview. As opposed to most of Avot, which consists of directives for how to best live our lives, Shimon HaTzaddik relates to the broader question of why the world exists. He asserts that the world stands on three pillars: Torah (learning), avodah (service), and gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness).
The existence of multiple pillars helps us understand human diversity and the different aspects of each of our identities and missions.
The Alshich (Vayikra 9) observes that some people are drawn to Torah; others feel an affinity for tzedakah; and others focus on gemilut chassadim. Rashbi (Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai) and his colleagues were an excellent example of this phenomenon. The Gemara (Shabbat 11a) tells us that Rashbi and his peers’ intense focus on Torah learning excused them from the requirement to pray (the central form of contemporary avodah). In contrast, the mishnah (Berachot 30b) celebrates the chassidim harishonim who would spend nine hours a day praying. Similarly, the Gemara tells us that Rebbi Yochanan used to exclaim that, ideally, people would daven all day.
Which approach is right – Rashbi’s, Rebbe Yochanan’s, or something in between? How could there be such a stark contrast? Shimon HaTzaddik’s teaching helps us answer these questions. The world’s three pillars symbolize its multiple purposes. To fulfill these goals, Hashem creates people drawn to each one of them. Some embody the pillar of Torah, others that of avodah, and a third group that of gemilut chassadim.
Shalom as Harmonic Integration
The Akeidat Yitzchak (Naso, Sha’ar 74) and Rav Kook use this idea to explain the deeper meaning of shalom. The first chapter of Avot concludes with a statement of Rashbag (Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel) that he patterned after the earlier statement of Shimon HaTzaddik. Like Shimon HaTzaddik, Rashbag describes three factors the world’s existence depends upon. As opposed to Shimon HaTzaddik who focused on the components of the world’s purpose, Rashbag identifies din (justice), emet (truth), and shalom as the three elements that sustain the world (Avot 1:18).
What does the mishnah mean by shalom? The Akeidat Yitzchak explains that shalom is more than just the lack of hostility. Rather, it refers to people being able to work together towards the common good.
Rav Kook (Orot HaTeshuvah, Ma’amar Shalom Bashem) took this idea a step further and defined shalom as people appreciating and finding the appropriate place for each other’s strengths. The example he gives tightens the connection between Rashbag’s statement and Shimon HaTzaddik’s. Shalom, explains Rav Kook, is the ability of those involved in chesed 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 on Torah learning. The existence of people focused on different pillars necessitates shalom that can facilitate our successful integration 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 those of others.
An Integrative Personality
Rav Kook (Mussar Avicha, pg. 39) also applies this integrative perspective to the balance each individual needs to forge personally. People should appreciate the importance of their involvement (at least on some level) in all aspects of avodat Hashem and the world’s purpose.
The Gemara (Shabbat 10a) tells us that Rava criticized Rav Hamnuna for devoting an inordinate amount of time to his davening. Rava felt that Rav Hamnuna was focused on praying for his needs in this world, as opposed to earning his place in the next through Torah learning. The Gemara explains that Rav Hamnuna felt that both tefillah and Torah have their appropriate time.”
Rav Kook understood Rav Hamnuna’s response as 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 whatever avenue of avodat Hashem we are involved in without feeling drawn to other forms of worship. Rav Kook uses Shimon HaTzaddik’s pillars to present this idea. He explains that when one is involved in tefillah, one should not think about the need to learn Torah or perform gemilut chassadim. When involved in Torah learning, one should not be distracted by the need to daven or do chesed. Rav Kook concludes with the broader idea that since everything exists for the honor of G-d and therefore all of one’s actions and pursuits ought to be for the sake of Heaven, one should always focus on the task at hand and not alternative possibilities. “Kol maasecha yehiyu l’shem shamayim – all your actions should be done in the name of Heaven.”
Our Internal Pillars
Though Shimon HaTzaddik presents the pillars as they are needed by the world, their focus is human action and behavior. The commentaries see the pillars as relating to different aspects humans ought to develop.
The Tiferet Yisrael saw the three as representative of the three relationships people need to develop. Torah learning is how we enrich ourselves, avodah is the focus of our relationship with Hashem, and gemilut chassadim embodies how we ought to relate to others.
The Rambam saw the three pillars as models of personal development. Torah is how we develop wisdom, gemilut chassadim is about character development, and avodah symbolizes mitzvah observance. Similarly, Rabbeinu Bachaye sees Torah learning as employing the mouth, avodah (prayer) as the work of the heart, and gemilut chassadim as the realm of action.
All the interpretations agree that the pillars are important not only for the world but for oneself as well. They teach us not just what the world needs to exist but also what we are meant to contribute. The world cannot learn, daven, or do acts of chesed, on its own; its purpose is realized through our actions.
May Shimon HaTzaddik’s teaching focus us on accomplishing what the world and we were created for.
May the multiplicity of pillars help us appreciate the importance of those whose focus differs from our own and help us develop all the aspects of our own avodah and personalities.