From Precepts to Pillars

1.2       Shimon Ha-Tzaddik was one of the last members of the Great Assembly. This was a favorite teaching of his:

The world rests on three things—
on Torah, on service of God, on deeds of love.

Week number two, and I’ve made it. It feels good. So far, this commitment is keeping to its goals (or rather, I’m keeping to mine). I know last week’s came a day late (and depending on time zones, this one might appear a day late as well), but in my defense that was only because of a problem with my internet not loading on Saturday, not that I didn’t do my studying then.

What’s more is that keeping this commitment is itself a fulfillment of these three pillars. (I use “pillars” in a neoclassical sense, in imagining the world held aloft on three pillars akin to Atlas and the globe; perhaps such a visage is scientifically inaccurate, but it’s metaphorically useful in such regard, as should one pillar fall, the standing of the other two becomes inept and the world falls no matter how strong they might be. It’s a balance, no doubt, which likely I’ll get at later.)

Again, to the grammatically inclined, you might have noticed I said this one act fulfills all three, as opposed to its logically filling only the first, that of Torah. As a student, and as a good student especially, I can attest to a large part my success the tradition in which I’ve been raised: Unlike many of the other religions I’m aware of, Judaism is the only one that stresses education as a crucial part of one’s religious practice (that I say “stresses,” although unfortunately, is usually true in today’s world, or at least in mine: For as much as I love learning, trying to learn everything is most certainly a large cause of stress in my life). In Judaism, knowledge is praised over power, understanding over conquest, so much that the word Talmud, referring to the many books of commentary on the Torah from which the Pirkei Avot is taken, shares the same root as the word talmid, meaning student. All commentary is itself study—and thereby any act of studying is as holy (by my reasoning) as studying the Talmud and Torah. (Of course, studying the Torah is the highest form of studying possible, but it’s through this train of thought that I’ve come to appreciate all forms of studying and aim to be such an accomplished student myself.)

So why the Torah? I could blanketly say that the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, is the primary religious text for Judaism and stop there, but that’d be a cop-out, and I’m not one to go for those, especially with this (recall from last week: be cautious in your decisions, or more simply, think a bit).

The answer, of course, is that the Torah is the primary text in Judaism, but sometimes it’s helpful to then ask why that is: The answer is that the Torah, although not the direct word of God, is at once a physical and faithful history of the Jewish people. Although not every fact of the Torah is reciprocated in recorded history, a fair enough majority of them are to know that it does record the actual history of a people that have now existed four thousand years. And as a religious text, it shows us the origins of our faith and records the words of God in such a way that they can still mean something millennia after they were first written down. These words will fade, but those of the Torah will remain immortal.

More importantly, the Torah is a rulebook. It records, in addition to the history aforementioned, the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Jewish people. Although a vast number of these can no longer be fulfilled in today’s world, it serves as a guide for us to become a holy people, to move ourselves closer to God and toward a better world for all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike.

This fulfillment of the laws herein is the second pillar so stated: the service of God.

To elaborate here almost seems unnecessary, with all that I’ve rambled on already, but it bears some worthiness to do so anyways. In short, I suppose I shall name a few of these mitzvot, perhaps for those not yet familiar. I’m sure we all know the Ten Commandments, but those are just ten—there’s still 603 after that. There’s laws about agriculture (such as leaving dropped gleanings for the poor, or not harvesting the corners of your fields to leave food for the hungry), laws about livestock (such as not plowing with an ox and an ass at the same time, for they move at different paces and stumble each other up), and even laws about food (such as not cooking a calf in its mother’s milk, from which we derive the practice of not mixing meat and dairy). But that’s only a small sampling and there truly exists laws for all areas of your life such to the point that at every moment of the day you’re able to act on the words of the Torah and truly serve God.

This, of course, leads to another question: Where, in all of this, is love? For me, it lies in one’s intent. In my public speaking course this last semester, when we got to doing our persuasive speeches, our textbook spoke about honesty and ethics while speaking. In short, it warned of not manipulating one’s audience, of choosing a topic you’re truly passionate about, one that you care for and can honestly communicate to your peers. It spoke about the various ways to persuade an audience and the ethical dangers of using such practices in the wrong ways. But what it all came down to was that each of us—as individuals—had to decide how we were going to use these tools in our speeches: Were we going to inform and persuade, or simply manipulate?

Will we act honestly, or dishonestly? Will we be ethical, or unethical? Or as I’ve read in various books on New Age practices, there is no such thing as good magic or bad magic, only good people or bad people. That sums it up perfectly, but I’d expand it further: There is no such things as good actions or bad actions, only good intentions and bad intentions. (Of course, this is truly too broad a statement to be wholly accurate, but for this argument, it gets my point across.)

That is to say, our intent often determines the worth of our actions. Two people can donate a hundred dollars to the same charity, thereby doing the same amount of good, but whereas one could do so because he honestly cares for the cause, the other could do so simply for the recognition of giving such a generous donation. Both actions are identical, but the intent behind them differs so incredibly that the actions themselves seem foreign to one another.

That intent is where pursuing the Torah and pursuing the service of God truly become deeds of love. When we can imbibe all of our actions with good intentions, when we can be passionate about all that we do, we simple shine. We become like beacons of loving-kindness in the world, like pillars that rise over the rest of us and support the sky, that hold up the world and inspire others. For me, my love of learning has allowed me to succeed stupendously in my academic endeavors so far, and I hope that my passionate desire for knowledge will help me to continue to do this. And thus far, my wanting to become closer to God and Judaism has filled this single practice of studying the Pirkei Avot with such love that, indeed, it upholds all three pillars.

Is it enough? Not nearly. But like anything in the world, it brings me one step closer to where I want to be, and perhaps, hopefully, it’ll help someone else to take that next step as well.

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