There are often times when I am reading or studying a Jewish text, and I want to share it all with you. Obviously, that is not realistic, as Judah HaNasi already redacted the Mishnah, so there is no need for me to jot that down again. Also, I don’t think you would stick around to read such volume in one sitting. On this particular day, at this particular moment, I happen to be reading the Pirkei Avot section of the Mishnah. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), is probably the most cited section of the Mishnah, and has many famous quotations. One of those prominent bits struck me in an interesting way as I was reading tonight.
Pirkei Avot 1:2 gives us a quotation from Shimon HaTzaddik (Shimon the “just” or “righteous”). But first, a bit of a detour. Rabbi Marc Angel’s commentary gives us an interesting anecdote about an exchange between Shimon HaTzaddik and Alexander the Great. Apparently, as the latter was making his way through Eretz Yisrael, Alexander the Great met HaTzaddik and was thoroughly impressed with what Angel refers to as Shimon HaTzaddik’s “spiritual demeanor.” Alexander proceeded to demand that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple; because what better way to honor a sage’s spiritual competence than by commissioning a statue of yourself? I mean, we’ve all done it, right? No? Well, I digress. After ever-so-tactfully explaining to Alexander that statues are not allowed in the Temple, HaTzaddik does something rather smart. He tells Alexander that while he cannot accommodate his statue request, what he can do is have all the children of priests be named Alexander for a year. Better to appease Alexander than to simply tell him “no,” I presume. So, if you know any Jewish people named Alexander, and have thought, that sounds rather Hellenistic, now you know why!
Now, back to Pirkei Avot 1:2. While I usually don’t put the actual Hebrew in my posts, I am feeling a change for tonight. I will put both the Hebrew and I will transliterate for those who do not read:
עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
“Al sh’losha d’varim haolam omeid, al hatorah v’al haavodah v’al g’milut chasadim”
“On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness.”
These three things that Shimon HaTzaddik has so concisely and profoundly offered us seem to touch every aspect of life in one way or another. When we study and embrace Torah, we are bettering ourselves. We are expanding our minds, learning to open ourselves up to novel ideas, and honing the discipline of our own intellectual inner life. When we worship the Divine, we are fostering a relationship with a force greater than ourselves. We can exit our own minds, and enter into infinite and eternity. When in the act of worship or prayer, we might strive to leave our physical bodies aside for a moment, and look at the human experience from an elevated vantage point. Worship brings us out of any inkling of bookishness and opens our souls to the possibility of being filled with the warm radiance of Divinity. Through “g’milut chasadim,” or acts of loving-kindness, we are able to turn our attention to our relationships with others. Acts of kindness, no matter how perceptually large or small, are all gargantuan. Without human-to-human interaction and application of study and worship, we could become hermetic; and what is knowledge and Divine inspiration without including and serving our fellow humans? The Torah and God are not meant to be kept secret. How can we share with the world?
Let us reflect for a moment. According to Shimon HaTzaddik of the Mishnah, the world is kept upright through Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness. Perhaps you do not read the Torah, worship the Divine, or consciously partake in acts of righteousness. Perhaps it is a good time to ask ourselves some questions. What do you do to feed your mind, and your intellect? Do you challenge yourself with simple reads, or have you tried pacing your way through that more intense piece? Do you take the easier classes that you are less interested in than the classes that might stimulate your mind and interests more effectively? Do you feel challenged enough to gain a sense of accomplishment? Perhaps it is time to find your Torah. I know that not everyone attends Shabbat services weekly, or even at all. Do you have a method of connecting with a power that is far greater than yourself? Do you sense a higher purpose to your life? Have you seen the holiness in the apparently mundane lately? Perhaps it is time to find your soul’s fuel. Finally, what have you done for others? Do you serve others, and not take the time to recognize your own service? Do you spend all of your time studying or worshipping, and lose touch with the world of the living and suffering? Perhaps it is time to directly connect with the people with whom you share your world.
May we all be blessed to find our Torah, our soul’s nutrition, and the service of loving-kindness within ourselves. If we can work to balance these three aspects of ourselves, perhaps the world will follow suit, and begin to operate more evenly and effectively. If we all search for our versions of these three things, what beautiful equilibrium we could bring to this world.
In the meantime, no statues, Alex!