The World Stands Upon Three Things

Yossie from New Jersey

Al Sh’losha d’varim ha-olam omeid: al ha-Torah, v’al ha-Avodah, v’al Gemitut Chasadim

The world stands upon three things: on Torah, and on Divine Service, and on acts of kindness.
(Avot 1:2)

There is an amazing Maharal on this Mishna, in his brilliant commentary to Pirkei Avos, Derech Chaim. He writes that all of creation is dependent on Man, in whose service it was created. If Man doesn’t function as intended, the entire world loses its purpose. We see this from the Generation of the Flood, where it says, “And God said ‘I will eradicate man … from the face of the earth, from man to the animals to the crawling creatures to the birds of the sky'”.1 How does the decision to destroy man come to include destroying the animals and birds and all the earth’s creatures?

The Midrash cites a parable:

A king prepared a lavish wedding and fancy house for his son, only to have the son rebel against his father. After the king executed his son, he destroyed all that had been prepared for the wedding, crying: “This was all made for my son; my son is gone and this should remain?!”.2

Similarly, Chazal say in many places, ha-kol nivra bishvil adam – “everything was created for the sake of man”.

However, adds the Maharal, Man was created in an incomplete and deficient state, as an undisciplined creature. This is alluded to in the Torah’s description of the creation; after nearly each ‘day’ of creation, the verse says – va’yar Elokim ki tov, “and God saw that it was ‘good'”, whereas, after Man was created, it waits until the verse that summarizes the entire creation and then says: va’yar Elokim et kol asher asah, v’hinei tov me’od, “and God saw all that He had made, behold it was very good“.3 The Midrash teaches that the letters of the word “me’od” – mem, aleph, dalet, rearrange to spell Adam, man.

Animals and other creations fulfill their purpose by their very existence; therefore God could write about their creation that it was “good.” Man, on the other hand, is created in an incomplete and deficient state, as an undisciplined creature. He must work at perfecting himself, at fulfilling his potential and purpose, until he develops to the level of tov.

In order to acquire this level of tov, goodness, and to fulfill his purpose and potential, he must perfect three different facets of his existence. He must fulfill his potential with respect to himself, as a uniquely human creation. He must fulfill his potential in relation to his Creator, thus implementing the will of God who brought him into existence. And he must realize his potential in relation to his fellow man, thereby fulfilling his responsibilities to the people with whom God surrounded him.

  • Torah – divine, spiritual wisdom, is what enables a person to perfect his humanity. It is what makes him a unique creation. The Torah enables man to transcend his limiting animalistic, materialistic dimension to become the complete being G-d had intended. Torah itself is called “good” as it says, Ki lekach tov natati lachem, Torati al ta’azovu – “For I have given you a good teaching; do not forsake My Torah”.4 It is man’s acquisition of Torah and its values that gives him the unique spiritual dimension that justifies his existence and that of creation.
  • Avodah refers to service of G-d and devotion to Him. This includes the Offerings (in the time of the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash) which today are replaced by prayer, and ultimately all the Mitzvot that we perform in serving Him. “Service” implies that we do it for the sake of serving, because we have the ability and inherent motivation to do so. This is our perfection in relation to our Creator; without properly maintaining this relationship, we undermine the essence of our having been created. This is the second foundation upon which the world stands: Man in relation to his Creator.
  • G’milut Chasadim – acts of generosity and kindness. When man does for others with no obligation to do so, and with no expectation of return this makes man truly “good” in relation to those with whom he shares the world. This connection of man to his fellow man is the final pillar: Man in relation to others.

With these three pillars – Torah, Avodah and G’milut Chasadim – man becomes complete, enabling him to fulfill his complete purpose in this world, and giving a stable foundation to the world’s existence.

With this, explains the Maharal, we can now understand the Gemara5 that teaches us: There are three cardinal sins in Judaism that require one to give up their life rather than violate (yeihareig v’al ya’avor). The three are:

  • Avodah zarah – Idol worship
  • Gilui arayot – Incestuous sexual relations and adultery
  • Sh’fichat damim – Murder.

Why should these three specific sins require one to forfeit his life? Because each of these three sins is the opposite of one of the three pillars upon which the existence of the world stands.

Avodah Zarah is obviously the opposite of Divine Service. Rather than devoting himself to service of the Creator, he devotes himself to service of false gods and values.

Sh’fichat damim where one kills another human being, depriving him of his most basic possession, his life, is obviously the very opposite of gemilut chasadim where one gives of himself and his possessions to another, something which he is not required to do.

Gilui arayot is the exact opposite of Torah. Sexual impropriety is man debasing himself and behaving in his most animalistic form, deviating from his humanity, whereas Torah is the elevation of man’s humanity to the Divine. Chazal see an allusion to the abdication of the loss of intellectual control that in particular accompanies a sin of a sexual nature, in the verse Ki tisteh..6 which introduces the crime of adultery. The word tisteh has at its root shoteh which means a fool, devoid of intellectual clarity, indicating that it is a loss of the intellect, that trait of man that distinguishes him over an animal, that precedes the submission to sexual temptation. Sexual deviation, an act emanating from the purely materialistic side of man, stands in direct opposition to Torah, which embodies the most intellectual and spiritual side of man.

Now we can understand why the dor ha-mabul – the generation that was destroyed by the flood in the time of No’ach – was not destroyed until they had committed all three of these cardinal sins, thereby undermining every aspect and justification of their existence. On the verse Vatishacheit ha’aretz lifnei ha-Elokim – “and the land was ‘destroyed’ before God”7 – Chazal teach us8 that the word “hashchata” refers to sexual deviance and idol worship. Here two pillars of the world were undermined: Torah and Avodah. In addition, there was gezel, robbery, as it is written vatimalei ha’aretz chamas “and the world was filled with lawlessness (robery). This is the opposite of gemilut chasadim. Rather than giving someone from your resources, you take his resources for yourself.

When the generation had uprooted all three foundations of the world’s existence, through behavior that contradicted them, there was no means of support for the world, and destruction inevitably resulted.

These three things are also found in our three Avos (Patriarchs) – our forefathers, Avraham, Yizchak and Ya’akov, who were also fathers and foundations of the entire world.

Gemilut chasadim was the special trait of Avraham, who was well known for his hospitality towards guests and other deeds of kindness. The Navi writes, Titein emet le-Ya’akov chessed le-Avraham, “Give truth to Ya’akov, kindness to Avraham.”9

Avodah is the unique trait of Yitzchak, who was prepared to have himself sacrificed on the altar, making him the pillar of service to G-d.

Yaakov was the pillar of Torah, as we know from the verse V’Yaakov ish tam, yosheiv ohalim “and Jacob was a wholesome man, who was a sitting in the tents [of Torah study]”.10 The “truth” mentioned in the verse from Micha (above) also refers to Torah study. His unique trait was “emet,” truth, which refers to Torah – as the verse says: Torat emet hayta b’fihu “The Torah of Truth was in his mouth”.11

The Maharal then relates this to the very elements of the world: The three fundamental elements of the world (aside from the earth itself) are air, water and fire. The means through which each of these worldly elements connect with the Divine is through the three pillars of our Mishna, and as such these pillars support the world and its continued existence. Torah is the spirit, wisdom and understanding, referred to as wind and air.12 Avodah is fire; where offerings were brought through consumption by fire (as we see, they are often refered to as Ishai, “My fire offerings”). Gemilut chasadim is represented by water. Just as water is considered the substance of bountiful generosity, the one who does acts of chesed is generously bestowing his resources on others. Through these three elements of creation, which parallel the three pillars of our Mishna, Hashem ensures the continued existence of the world.

— < wow, huh? > —

Some years after learning this, I heard a shiur from Rav Elchonon Adler, who explained the enigmatic 7th verse in Mizmor shir l’yom ha-Shabbos (The song for the Shabbat day).13

Ish ba’ar lo yeida u-ch’sil lo yavin et zot
“A boor does not know and a fool doesn’t understand this”.

What is the difference between a boor (ish ba’ar) and a fool (ch’sil)? And what is “this” (zot)?

Rabbi Adler noted that the gematria of ba’ar is 272 – twice the value of u-ch’sil – 136. Zot has a gematria value of 408 – three times 136. He related this to one of the highlights of the Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur liturgy – when we read about the awesomeness of the day in u-n’taneh tokef, which describes the scene as each of each of God’s creatures comes before Him for Judgement. Until, finally, the congregation calls out loudly together, u’t’shuva, u’tzedaka, u’tefilla – ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezeira, “and repentance, and prayer, and charity – remove the evil decree”.

R’ Adler pointed out that in most machzorim, above the words t’shuva, tz’daka and tefilla are written: tzom (fasting), kol (loud cry) and mamon (money). The gematria of each of these three words is .. 136! So, explained R’ Adler, the ch’sil (fool) in our verse has only one of these values, the ba’ar (boor) has two, but neither has the completeness of zot14, which is all three combined.

This fits in beautifully with what the Maharal said. T’shuva – repentance, is the key to fixing one’s relationship with his internal self. T’filla – prayer, is the way to reconnect to Hashem. And Tzedaka – charity, is the way to fix the pillar of chessed.

By strengthening these three pillars, we serve as foundations to support the continued existence of the entire world.

1 Breishit 6:7
2 Breishit Rabbah 28:6
3 Breishit 1:31
4 Mishlei 4:2
5 Sanhedrin 74a
6 Bamidbar 5:12
7 Breishith 6:11
8 Sanhedrin 57a
9 Micha (7:20)
10 B’reishit 25:27
11 Malachi 2:6
12 see Isaiah 11:2
13 Tehilim 92 – which, according to one Midrash, was composed by Adam ha-rishon (see Bava Basra 14b-15a for a reference to the ‘other’ authors of Tehilim, besides David ha-Melech)
14 Which, I later learned, Kabbala links to the concept of ‘Malchut’ – see Tikunei Zohar 110d

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