In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, we learn,
We could take a lifetime to unpack this little phrase and still not get to most of it. Still, I want to offer, on the eve of my Installation as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, a bit of my understanding, under the category of: Things I deeply believe.
I believe it is important that this teaching from Pirke Avot does not open by saying that, “Israel,” or “The Jewish community” stands on three things. It has the chutzpah, the boldness to make a statement about the whole world. This is not to suggest that everyone in the world has to believe it. This is a Jewish teaching for us about the whole world and our specific relationship to that world. Or, we could say, this is a Jewish teaching about what we understand the world needs that we, as Jews, are uniquely able to contribute.
First, we can contribute our insight that humanity requires a Torah, or Law. There have to be rules governing the behavior of individuals, leaders, and nations. This is a matter of justice, and Judaism teaches that human relationships require justice from the intimate to the global scale.
Second, we as Jews are obligated to service. Through the millennia, this basic responsibility has not changed, though the specific service required has evolved profoundly. The initial meaning of avodah, service, was of The Service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur afternoon, which included the dramatic full prostration of all the worshipers on the Temple Mount. When the temple was destroyed, the avodah became part of a prayer service, however, avodah also means to work, labor, till soil, and serve. (The root of the word can also mean to arrange music.) In Judaism, service for God is done not just with the lips, but also with the whole body—and it is done for the whole world.
Third, according to Judaism, the world also requires our acts of loving kindness. Note, we are not required to love (anyone but God). Judaism does not legislate feelings, but actions. Feelings are fleeting and ephemeral. We are not to base our actions upon them. We are to perform acts of loving kindness to Jews and non-Jews, because that is what the world is. Law and basic service are not enough to hold the world together. There needs to be another, kinder and more loving aspect to our interactions. Judaism teaches us to do those acts, believing the heart will follow.
Finally, the teaching specifically says the world ‘stands,’ omed, on these three things. Without Law, Service, and Acts of Loving Kindness, the world falls, and falls apart.
We’ve been around the world enough times to know that’s true.
And we know what we have to do.