pirkei avot 1:18 - The Meaning of Truth Justice and Peace

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Isaac. May it be an aliyah for her

Rabban Shimon ben (the son of) Gamliel says, "By three things does the world endure: by truth, justice and peace as it is said, 'You shall administer truth, justice and peace in your gates.' (Zechariah 8:16)"

It seems that Ethics of our Fathers has come full circle in this last mishna - it mirrors mishna 1:1 with regards to the author's names as well as how each one chose to style his quote. In mishna 1:1, Shimon Hatzadik instructs the Jewish nation to learn Torah, serve G-d and do acts of loving kindness while in mishna 1:18 Shimon ben Gamliel ordered the coming generations to rule society with truth, justice and peace.

Other than mirroring one another, the first mishna also serves as a stepping stone for the second. In the former triad, we are told that the world was created for the purpose of us learning Torah, serving G-d and emulating Him. When we have mastered the Torah's teachings (or, are still trying to) we can move on to learning about what makes people tick. What does society need in order to function as a culture reflecting G-d?

By the way, since these concepts are so abstract, people (such as Samurais, Isis or the imagined Knights of the Round Table) tend to view them differently. Marianne Moore, a contemporary of Eliot's (and my personal hero), is one of the wittiest writers from the 1900's to point the futility of trying to understand abstract words and incomprehensible ideas in poetry. Therefore, I bring the Torah's explanation on truth, justice and peace; its views have not changed since we received it at Sinai.

Irving Bunim, the author of Ethics from Sinai explains the word truth in context with the judicial system, "We must first ascertain the truth... and nothing but the truth. We cannot rely on conjecture or [Oscar worthy] arguments. The prophet Isaiah says, 'He [the Messiah] shall not judge by the sight of his eyes nor shall he make final decisions by his ability to hear; with righteousness shall he judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek on earth' " (Isaiah 11:3-4).

As to the meaning of justice, most people bend the word to fit their personal views. Medieval Christianity is notorious for having taken the phrase, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand etc." (Exodus 21:26) and rendering it as proof that Jews only go for harsh, unmoving justice. The Merchant of Venice illustrates Middle Age anti-Semitism through a caricature of the money hungry Jew, screaming for justice in the courtrooms of Venice. Shylock, Shakespeare's Jew, howled, "What judgement shall I dread doing... I would have my bond. I stand for judgment: answer, shall I have it?" To this, the Duke, the Venetian judge, replied, "How shall thalt hope for mercy, rendering none?"

Thank G-d we have Rashi's commentary to clear up that mess. He says, "The Torah does not literally mean "an eye for an eye." Rather, in the event that a person damages his friend's eye (or tooth or foot or face etc), he must pay his friend the value of his eye. For instance, if the man's ability to work is affected, then the perpetrator must pay for the value of this man's paycheck as well as for any personal anguish that he might have caused him (for further laws, consult your local Orthodox Rabbi). Julia Roberts has a smile that is worth three million. If some Joe happened to clunk her one, according to Jewish law he would need to cough up the full three million.

Where does peace come into all this? The ideal Jew is one who weighs his every action, who asks himself, "Is this next decision in accordance with the Creator's will? One of the character traits that Hashem (G-d) values most is peace. Therefore, peace must be the last word in every act we do. Let's take this idea a step further. Since the borders by which G-d defines halacha (Torah laws) show us how to express harmony between ourselves and G-d as well as between ourselves and others, we must posit every thought with, "Is what I am about to do in line with the halacha?" May we all merit to see peace, justice and truth reign supreme.  

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