From Precepts to Principles

1.18     Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught:

The world rests on three things:
on Justice, on Truth, on Peace,
as it is written, “With truth, justice, and peace
shall you judge in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Ever since I was about nine or ten there’s been this budding mythology inside me that I’ve yearned to write. It began as innocent childish imaginings, spawned of TV shows like Pokémon and Digimon or books about Harry Potter and astrology, but slowly the characters took on lives of their own, the stories became more defined, and this collection of fantasies twisted itself into something rivaling a full mythology. My biggest dream as a writer is to be able to take all of these stories and compose them into a single epic tale.

In one of my earliest attempts to write this, there were two characters I called Truth and Justice. They had come from a magical world to set the main protagonist on his adventures, a catalyst to the fantastic things I’d imagined. By the time I tried to write it a second time, these characters had vanished and been transformed; these events had entirely disappeared and been re-imagined.

What stands out to me, especially when I read this teaching, is that even then—only nine or ten years old, not even half my age now—there was something inherently important about Truth and Justice.

These two concepts weren’t just concepts then; they were personifications of heroes that would take a child, unknowing of his great destiny, and show him the path to follow. They weren’t means to an end; they were merely the signposts of the path to follow.

Now armed with abstract thinking, I can see how this is the case even if they aren’t heroes or guardians. Truth isn’t merely a means to an end. If that were the case, it’d be the benefits of lying that I’d be speaking about. Truth is, however, on all these metaphorical billboards: It may be hard to tell the truth, to be honest, to deny ourselves the ignorance that makes life easy, but it’s the right way, and following these signs keeps us on the right path—whether it’s rocky or smooth, it’s still taking us where we ultimately want to be.

Justice is the same. It’s not merely a suggestion for what to do, but a guideline that keeps us travelling in the right direction. A while back I wrote an entire post about justice and about what it means to be just. All valid points, all part of a larger picture.

This is the last teaching in the first book of the Pirkei Avot, and I decided I’d read it first in Hebrew: And when I read it in Hebrew, I found I was easily able to understand each of the words and know exactly what they meant.

My Hebrew skills are not very great, and being in school, I have little time to practice and learn more, so it’s a rare occasion when I can understand something entirely in Hebrew—and even rarer when I can understand something entirely in Hebrew before reading the English and working backwards to the translation, and even more so when reading something of this length.

It makes me wonder what I’ll do next week, if I’ll continue to read the Pirkei Avot each week, if I’ll instead put the time into extra studying, or perhaps into fiction writing, which I haven’t done much lately. It’s hard to say, and that’s being honest to myself. Truth.

Justice.

Peace. Peace is a hard one to define. World peace? Personal peace? Peace and quiet? The Hebrew word for peace, “shalom,” also means “whole.” It evokes a deeper meaning of “peace”—not merely a state without conflict, but a state of wholeness, feeling at one, peaceful. I think I wish for world peace on every birthday candle and every shooting star I see these days, but at the same time I understand world peace is an ideal impossible to achieve: There’s too much here, too many conflicting ideas, to unify them into a cohesive whole. But maybe with enough honesty and integrity, enough Truth and Justice, it’ll be possible someday.

It was about four and a half months ago when I began reading a teaching each week. It began with three precepts: rendering cautious decisions, rearing many students, and protecting the Torah. It continued with three pillars: Torah, service, and love. Now it ends with three more precepts, three more pillars, three ultimate principles: Truth, Justice, and Peace.

They seem to make a pyramid to me. The initial three precepts come together perfectly to give a lesson on being truthful: If we decide cautiously, with much thought, we’ve considered the facts delicately and adequately. If we rear many students, we have given this truth to others—we haven’t just kept it for ourselves, we’ve made the truth known. And if we protect the Torah, if we follow these laws, the cause behind our decisions is well-known, too.

The second two play right into justice: From the Torah we gain the laws we exemplify, and from serving God and serving others justice can be achieved. This leaves one last thing for the final lesson: Love is the key to peace. And peace is synonymous with wholeness.

These five months haven’t been spent studying eighteen different lessons (that the number eighteen, in Hebrew, is equivalent to “life” is another story for another time). Instead these five months have been spent studying a single lesson, but like with math or grammar, the true worth of this lesson, the true depth of what it means, can’t be reaped until the whole has been seen. From Truth, we learn Justice, and from Justice, we learn Peace.

I hope each of you who have read this, whether from the start or from this post, have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Someday I will continue with the second book of the Pirkei Avot, whether it’s next week or next year. For now, I simply have to see what life calls me to do and go from there. I always welcome your comments and questions, and I encourage you to share your thoughts and leave some feedback.

L’hitraot. I’ll see you soon.

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3 thoughts on “From Precepts to Principles

  1. Truly simpler, or simply easier to understand for one not acquainted with the language?

    I’m not exactly certain how many of these teachings you have discussed (as I recall only reading five, if that), but the one’s I have been informed about have been well worth the time spent reading it — and I guess that could somehow be translated to ‘enjoyment’.

    I hope you, in the tradition of ancient Greek epics, will write this work of mythology fully in rhyme, or some abstracted derivation. (… Though you are allowed to negate the need for Homeric metaphors spanning entire chapters.)

    A short, unrelated, note on an English colloquialism which annoys beyond mortal comprehension: “all but”. There are two ways to interpret that phrasing, and one of them is a result of a sole usage of the intended interpretation in a medieval text, that is: “near; almost; as near as possible”.

    It’s hardly every used in this way, and is therefore easy to confuse with the more prominent interpretation “all x except y”. This means a sentence such as “He was all but finished.” can be interpret in one of two ways:

    1) He was nearly finished; he was almost done.

    2) He was everything except finished.

    Both are correct, but nearly always are they also both proper interpretations in any sentence. This is incredibly annoying, especially when trying to be unambiguous. “All except” is the more natural interpretation, yet “all but” when used thus is more likely to be a colloquialism. (Hence the name; am I implying this wasn’t fulfilling in the least, or applauding this intellectual stimulation? Both could be correct, yet only one is.)

    ~ Iced

    P.S.: I think life is calling you to tell me how things are going. ;)

  2. I feel the same way about such an expression as that; it all but baffles me every time someone insists upon using it. Nonetheless, I thank you for your readership and your commenting–both fulfill me very much and definitely relieve some of the stress I’m currently feeling from school. Which means, to answer your thought at the end, I’m doing well. (:

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