Lists of Three
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 from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say, “On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service and on acts of loving-kindness.”
Ethics of the Father 1:2
There are many oft-quoted texts from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), but this one stands out. This is the first of many lists of three found in Pirkei Avot, and it offers an intriguing opportunity for close reading and analysis. In keeping with the Rabbinic approach to understanding text, we should pay close attention not only to the words themselves, but also to the order in which they appear. What can we learn from the fact that the world stands first on Torah, next on service, and finally on acts of chesed (loving-kindness)?
I’m sure this question has been asked and answered many times, but here is my take: Rather than ranking in order of importance, I see this list as more of a workflow or order of operations. Each element is a crucial part of the process, so it is not possible to rank them. In fact, they are more of a cycle than anything else.
Though we could enter the cycle anywhere, let’s start where the Mishnah starts – with Torah. As the central narrative of the Jewish people, there is an understanding that its study not only connects us geographically and temporally, but it also provides an ethical foundation upon which a society rooted in improving the world can stand. Torah Lishmah (Torah study for it’s own sake) is an act that is inherently mental, emotional, and spiritual. Schools like Gesher exist in order to transmit the requisite skills for this type of profound study.
Service today means a very different thing than it did in the past. The Hebrew word Avodah comes from the root for “slave” and “work,” and refers to ancient sacrifices made during the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem. Today divine service refers to prayer, or to connecting with community and the divine through ritual practices. While the mode is rooted in the spiritual, the rituals found in Judaism most often connect us with the physical through food, sound, and light and connect us with other people through communal practices.
Finally, acts of loving-kindness (Gemilut Chasadim) are ways in which we manifest divinity in our own actions. When we take the time to move thoughtfully through our interactions with other human beings, we are in fact enacting the model of society we find in Torah Study, and bringing the meanings of our prayers and rituals to life. This part of the cycle is where the rubber hits the road, and provides each of us with the opportunity to have tangible positive impact on the lives of others — ultimately the goal of our educational and spiritual efforts is to engage in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).
This cycle is woven throughout everything we do here at Gesher, from the morning meetings in Elementary School to the decisions being made by our Middle School Student Government officers. This, ultimately, is why sending your children to a Jewish Day School provides them with an education you just can’t get elsewhere, and prepares them to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.