Pirkei Avos: Charter 1, Mishneh 2 says…
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Shimon the Righteous was among the last of the Great Assembly. He would say: On three things the world stands; on Torah, on serving God, and on bestowing of kindness.
Whenever going through Pirkei Avos, it is essential to remember that not only are they a collection of great Jewish maxims you can tweet or put on a t-shirt, they also follow a chain of transmission. The first mishneh (teaching) detailed how it started at Sinai, as the wisdom of the Torah was transmitted from God to Moses. Then from Moses to Joshua, etc, etc, until it ended up with the Anshe Kinesset HaGedolah or the Men of the Great Assembly. Essentially the Jewish Supreme Court. They’re the ones who put Judaism into the form we know today.
Shimon the Righteous was the last or remnant of that body. The mishneh is specifically pointing that out to say, of all the things the Jewish Supreme Court had to say, the last remaining member felt it was essential to remember this idea. So needless to say it is pretty important.
What Do You Stand For?
On three things the world stands…
Other translations define the word עוֹמֵד as “depends” or “is based upon”. And though those may be more English sounding within the context of the phrase, they miss an essential element of the Hebrew. If you stand on something that implies there is a foundation in place to stand upon. If you’re in a building or structure, that means that that foundation had to be designed and engineered to support and endure. Its design has a purpose. If you stand for something, it means you have a purpose, a raison d’etre.
So if the world stands on something, Shimon the Righteous is saying the world has a purpose. What does Judaism say the world stands for?
To answer that, I’m going to reference a book named Mesillas Yesharim (The Path of the Just) written by Rabbi Moshe Chiam Luzzatto in the 1700s. It’s the ultimate Jewish self help book. Basically he says that the purpose the whole world was created for was so a person could cultivate a relationship with Hashem. Then the rest of the book tells you how to do that.
If you’ll take that as a given, then these three things from the mishneh are the three ways one builds a relationship with Hashem. But to understand that we need to understand how to build a relationship.
Foundations of Relationships
There are three building blocks of any relationship.
Investment, Communication, and Intimacy.
What is an investment? My Rabbi, Shalom Denbo (this whole blog is 100% all him, btw) defines investment as putting valuable resources into something with the hope of a positive return.
To enter into a relationship means you’re going to put in time, energy, money, intellect, thought, emotion and more. You’ve probably heard the saying “It’s the thought that counts,” concerning gifts. Well that only works if you actually put the time, energy, and contemplation to know a person well enough to give them something more moving than a dollar investment. Investing in a relationship means you’re willing to spend time to get to know and learn the other party. What they care about. What they like. What they love. What they fear. What annoys them. Etc.
Next is communication. Communication has two essential aspects. One is the ability to be a good listener. The other is the ability to express yourself in a manner that demonstrates that you understand what the other party is thinking and feeling.
If you can articulate your thoughts well, that’s great. But you’re only an explainer. A communicator knows their audience and understands what their audience is going through, where they are coming from. Where an explainer gives over information, a communicator moves the audience because they understand what the audience needs to hear.
The last block is intimacy. Intimacy is the ability to expose yourself in a manner that creates closeness. Often times, intimacy is synonymous with sexual relations. Though there is clearly a physical exposure there, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is an emotional or personal exposure. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee a closeness afterwards.
That’s because true closeness requires vulnerability. Letting the other person see your truest and most closely guarded thoughts and feelings. I once had a psychology professor say, “I love you is another way of saying, you have the ability to hurt me.” Within the realm of intimacy he certainly was right. But exposing can also cause distance if it isn’t done in an appropriate or welcome way.
The strength of a relationship can be assessed by these three areas. Not just romantic relationships. Friendships. Coworkers. Parents. Other members of the PTA. And those relationships require different levels of the three. So how do these relate to the mishneh and a relationship with God?
A Relationship With the Creator
As I said above, a part of investment is learning about the other person. How does one learn about God? How do you understand an infinite being? In truth you can’t. Except in the ways He made himself known. That would be through the Torah. The Torah literally means instructions. They are instructions on how to emulate Hashem. Though we’ll never fully understand God, we can certainly invest in our growth towards that endeavor.
Communication relates to service or avodah. Nowadays we do our avodah through prayer and so the connection to communication is pretty clear. But prayer is actually a replacement for the korbonos (sacrifices) we are no longer able to perform since the loss of the Temple. Why was prayer the replacement for korbonos? Aside from the national and holiday sacrifices, the main korbonos brought by an individual were for two reasons. One, thanksgiving and two, atonement.
The main aspects of communication in a relationship are thank you and I’m sorry. One shows that you appreciate and value the relationship while the other expresses that “I’m sorry I’ve damaged the relationship and I want to repair that damage.” If done correctly, these two aspects of communication demonstrate the understanding necessary to foster and deepen that relationship.
On bestowing of kindness…
It’s very difficult to be intimate with an infinite being. He knows everything about you, so you either acknowledge that or you don’t. If you do, great… but how does that include the aspect of being vulnerable?
Let’s say you’ve got two friends. One lives back in New York and the other lives in the city you are in now. They both like the same sports, have the same political views, love the same movies, basically they’d be perfect for each other. You finally get them to meet and they hit it off and become best friends. At that point, you feel close to both of them, even if you’re nowhere near either one.
Being intimate with God means sharing God with others. But it must be done in a way that fosters closeness. Holding a sign in Time Square saying “God is here, repent now!” isn’t going to sway anyone. But to do acts of kindness, understanding what another person needs, and striving to fill that need, not from an agenda but from genuine concern, that creates the opportunity to bring people close. It’s through that kindness that people are open to your connection with Hashem.
A Lasting Relationship
Shimon the Righteous leaves us with this profound insight on how to use these tools to cultivate our relationship with God. Given that this week’s Torah portion, Yisro is about the giving of the Torah, I think this Pirkei Avos mishneh is particularly appropriate for how to receive such a gift. So hopefully it will not only enrich your spiritual relationship, but all the relationships in your life.