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Pirke Avot, 1:2

Shimon haZadik was one of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say: "on three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the Service and on acts of kindness".

Shimon haZadik was one of the remnants of the Great Assembly.

According to Jewish tradition, Shimon Hazadik (which means 'The righteous') was the High Priest at the time of Alexander the Great. One of the last surviving members of the Great Assembly, he becomes the sole person capable of continuing their role.

His advice is to all, and is concerned with the essentials. The fact that there aren't enough worthy people to continue the Great Assembly implies a degeneration, and perhaps Shimon was trying to counter it, by reminding people of what's important in the world.

He used to say: "on three things the world stands:

What does it mean to say that the world stands on these three things? The simple explanation is that they are the three most important concepts in the world.

The deeper explanation is that these three concepts are what keeps the world existing. Jewish thought holds that everything is created for a reason, and were nothing in creation able to fulfil its purpose, the world would be destroyed. The list that follows is that of the ultimate purposes of creation.

on the Torah...

It's a common idea in Jewish sources that the giving of the Torah represented the completion of creation, the culmination of all history to that point. Learning the Torah is seen as fundamental to existence itself. The Talmud expresses this idea explicitly:

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a

"And it was evening, and it was morning, the sixth day" (Gen 1:31). There's an extra 'the' in that verse. Why? To teach us that the Holy one, blessed be he explained to creation, saying "If Israel accepts the Torah [which they did on the sixth of the month], you will survive. But if not, I'll return you to void and chaos".

...on the Service...

The 'Service' (literally 'work') is the term used to refer to the Temple service. It is the only of the things the world stand on that no longer exists. In fact, the Talmud says that since the destruction of the Temple, the physical world itself has deteriorated.

However, here are other forms of service. Prayer is seen as a substitute for the offerings on the Altar, and observance of the will of God; in other words, keeping mitzvot.

...and on acts of kindness.

Kindness, being good to others when you aren't obligated to and expect nothing in return, is a supreme value of Judaism, so much so that it's listed as equal to service of God and Torah itself.

The specific choice of three is interesting. It seems to me that they correspond to Jacob (Torah). Isaac (Service) and Abraham (kindness), and also to the respective kabbalistic sephirot of Tiferet, Gevurah and Chessed (which is the word for kindness). This is interesting, given that in the last mishna, it was suggested that its advice corresponded to the immediately preceding sephirot.

The Maharal links the three above with the three cardinal sins in Judaism. Murder is an offence against kindness, idol worship (avodah zarah, literally 'foreign service') is offending against the service of God, and sex crimes like rape are seen as surrendering to animalistic instincts, and a denial of the elevation of humanity through Torah.

Pirke Avot, 1:3

Antigonos, man of Socho received [the tradition] from Shimon Hatzadik. He used to say: "Don't be like servants who serve the Master on condition of getting a reward; rather be like servants who serve the Master with no condition of getting a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you".

Antigonos, man of Socho received [the tradition] from Shimon Hatzadik.

Unlike the word 'transmit' used in Mishna 1, the word 'received' here implies lossy communication. From now on, the chain of tradition from Moses begins to be a little less effective.

He used to say: "Don't be like servants who serve the Master on condition of getting a reward...

Many people complain that religions are all jam tomorrow, rewards and incentives. This is a condemnation of that position. Antigonos is saying "If you're doing all this for the rewards, you're doing it wrong".

...rather be like servants who serve the Master with no condition of getting a reward...

One of the sources I read points out that this is a silly example; in real life, you don't get servants who work for free. But maybe...

Have you ever felt strongly enough about one person that you'll do anything for them? Not in the "maybe s/he'll like me if I..." sort of way, but rather being motivated solely by the Other's happiness? That feeling, where you'll do exactly what is required. They may never find out; in fact, perhaps it's better if they don't. But you can just be happy, knowing you've made them happy? Have you ever experienced that sort of love?

That's what I think Antigonos means when talks of servants that serve with no expectation of reward; they serve out of love. This is the ideal to aspire to in the service of God.

...and let the fear of Heaven be upon you".

Why fear, now? Haven't we just been talking about love?

Fear and love are humanity's two primary ways of connecting with God. Perhaps love isn't enough; maybe we need a little fear too. Familiarity breeds contempt, and fear helps us remember our place, and not get complacent in our relationship with God.

Continuing my kaballistic musings, these concepts should correspond to the next two sephirot, Netzach and Hod. Indeed, Netzach is associated with love, and Hod with fear, in the schema of the Tree of Life.

The Torah has seventy faces. The above commentary represents my thoughts and those of commentators through the ages. However, these verses are supposed to be ambiguous, and any number of interpretations are valid, including yours. If you have anything interesting to add, let me know and I'll credit you in the writeup.

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