This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah
for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline
There are people in this world who embody their personal philosophies. Benjamin Franklin, inventor of the lightning rod, the firehouse and libraries, among other projects, was known for living by "Well done is better than well said." There's Henry David Thoreau, America's popular transcendentalist, whose mantra was that each person should live according to his own truth. "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
The fact that these two Americans are still remembered several hundred years later keeps us clued into an important truth: when you believe in something with all your heart and aren't afraid to live by it, you too will perhaps be quoted by the generations to come.
This is an apt truth in regard to our pirkei avot as well, a collection of teachings from our sages of blessed memory. The phrase which introduces most verses in pirkei avot is "He used to say..." "He used to say..." as opposed to "He said" to let us know that each of the sages' quotes aren't just bits and pieces that were picked up in conversation and recorded on a whim. They were mottoes which shed light on the essence of whoever was known for living according to them.
Yehudah Hanasi (Judah the Prince), our leading rav in the times of the Romans, after the second temple's destruction, recorded the pirkei avot. The quotes date all the way back to the 2nd century B.C.E. which was toward the end of the first beit hamikdash. We know this because Ethics of our Fathers begins with a saying from Shimon Hatzadik (Simeon the Just), one of the last high priests from the first temple. He inherited the position of high priest after Ezra Hasofer (Ezra the Scribe) and kept it for forty years. Aside from this, there were several other indications that Hashem was happy with Shimon's leadership. Every year, the kohen gadol did a lottery for the goat sacrifices on Yom Kippur, a test that showed whether G-d had forgiven the Jews' sins or not. When Shimon did the lottery, he always ended up picking the tablet that said "sai'aer lashem (goat for Hashem)" with his right hand. This was a sign that Bnei Yisrael (the Jews) were in the clear. There was also the eternal fire upon the alter which always blazed with strength and the flame in the western cup of the menora (candelabra) which never went out. There's the story of Alexander the Great's meeting with him. Alexander, the present world conqueror at that time, had prostrated himself before the tzadik, proclaiming that Shimon appeared in his dreams whenever he was about to win a battle.
Shimon Hatzadik can definitely have been counted among the the group of those who lived according to their word:
"Shimon Hatzadik was one of the last surviving members of the Great Assembly. He used to say, "The world stands on three things: Torah (learning), avoda (prayer) and gemilat chasadim (acts of loving kindness)."
He was saying that the world is akin to a three legged chair. What does this mean? Shimon Hatzadik was referring to the world existing in the merit of one who attains his purpose in this life through the uses of Torah, Avoda and Gemilat chasadim. Torah study increases the knowledge one needs in order to serve Hashem properly. Praying brings one to a constant awareness of G-d's presence. Loving kindness, deeds done with compassion, justice and righteousness, keep one in good stead with his fellow man. If any one of these legs starts breaking, causing the chair to sag, this would show that our purpose is off kilter.
When a person involves himself in all three activities, he is engaging his entire being into serving his Creator. He is thinking (Torah), speaking (Avodah), and doing (Gemilat chasadim) Judaism. One who is familiar with Genesis may recognize a correlation between our triad and our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Avraham avinu (our father Abraham) was the paradigm of loving kindness: he had a four entrance tent for greeting guests from every direction. He fed the spiritually hungry and begged Hashem to save the wicked sodomites (men of Sodom). Yitzchak is our exemplar in avodah: at one point we find him "meditating in the fields" (Genesis 24:63). Last but not least, we are told of Yaakov who was "a man of the tents" (Genesis 25:27) and studied the Bible for many years.
How did Shimon Hatzadik's arrival to this quote come to pass and what connection does the history of our avos (forefathers) have to do with him? Shimon understand during his time that the Jews were on the verge of dispersion. He wanted to provide us with the tools needed to maintain our religion. Therefore, he placed a special emphasis on the three pillars that the world of Judaism stands on, giving us not only a leg up into religious survival but a foot hold into the ability to serve Hashem no matter what.
There you have it: the key to our survival throughout the centuries. If you believe in something with all your mind, heart and soul don't be afraid to walk the walk. Go talk the talk. Jews haven't survived the centuries, religion intact, for nothing.