Rabbi Study 1

“Three Things” for Our Time

Rabbi Steven L. Denker


There exists a human affinity to the number three. Comedians know that they must “tell you about three…” A joke about just ‘two guys playing golf ‘ is not enough and a story about ‘four clergy on an airplane’ would be too much. We do many things on the ‘count of three’ and Goldilocks would simply not be the same if any bears were added or left out.

Rabbis also know this, and the Talmud mentions ‘three things’ over one hundred times with regard to an almost limitless range of subjects and human endeavors. The most well known of these ‘threes’ appear in the Mishnah’s Tractate Avot which is commonly known as Pirke Avot; in English, “Ethics of the Fathers,” although Aphorisms of the Ancestors, would be both more precise and avoid the problem of sexist language. Thanks to a modern musical rendition, the best known of these is the statement of Simeon the Righteous: “The world stands on three things: Torah, worship and acts of loyalty.” (Avot 1:2)

These lists of threes are attempts to teach, in a pithy and memorable way, broad categories of concern or goals of human behavior through which the individual may become more righteous (living according to The Law) and thereby sustain both the Jewish people and the world itself. To put it in other terms – they are the areas of life that should be of concern to anyone wishing to do her or his share as a partner of God in the continuing acts of creation, to sustain our people, as well as civilization in general. Notably, in these statements, our Sages do not prescribe specific acts, rather they recommend areas of engagement and allow us to fill in the specific mitzvot. It is worth repeating that, in this context, mitzvot are personal and communal actions and activities – not merely good thoughts and kind intentions.

Approaching Judaism as a dynamic and living faith, we might ask: What are the ‘three things’ for our own time? If a sage were writing the Mishnah today, he or she might very well teach that the world of the American Jew in the 21st century stands on: Kahal (community), Am (peoplehood) and Olam (the world). Such a leader would be recommending that every Jew become actively involved – spend some amount of time and contribution of resources – engaging in each of these three realms.

Kahal (Community) – In Judaism, fulfilling spirituality, effective communion with God and passing our Tradition to a next generation, has always been based on and actualized through the local community. Even though we strive to enhance our communal life with current technology, there is still no substitute for the face-to-face gathering of people. Engagement in community as the first leg upon which our world stands could include becoming active in any or all aspects of synagogue life, participating in the work of our Jewish Federation or some other local Jewish endeavors.

Am (Peoplehood) – Concerned as we are with our own neighborhood, Judaism teaches that every Jew bears responsibility for every other Jew regardless of location. Achieving freedom for Soviet Jewry, retrieving Ethiopian Jews and the rescue at Entebbe, are all examples of this principle in action. The second of our modern three things requires us to participate in efforts to sustain the Jewish people nationally and internationally. Support for Israel as the guarantor of Jewish security is essential. Concern for and action on behalf of Jews in places like Hungary, where public anti-Semitism is once again on the rise, is vital.   In this we are required to engage, through any one of many vehicles, in the mitzvot of peoplehood.   Political support for Israel through AIPAC or J Street, getting involved in Magen David Adom or the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and travel to Israel, these are among many possible points of engagement.

Olam (The World) – Jeremiah taught the Jews of Babylonia to be concerned about the welfare of the city to which they had been exiled “because in its welfare is contained your own” (29:7). Whether at home in Israel, or here in the diaspora, peace and security for the Jews depends, in large measure, on the stability of the political and economic systems that surround us. But beyond mere self interest, just as we are commanded to take action within our community and on behalf of Jews everywhere, so are we charged with being a Light to the Nations by concerning ourselves with issues of justice, poverty, hunger and freedom for all humanity. This approach to engagement with the world does not require a particular political point of view. Good people across the entire spectrum of opinion agree on these goals. They differ only in the way to achieve them. Whatever your politics, activity of your choice to support the common good is required for fulfillment of this Jewish ideal.

Within each of these modern three categories of Jewish responsibility there are an infinite number of possibilities for engagement, involvement and participation. All three areas are of equal importance and each is essential to the fulfillment of our Jewish ideal of a life well and valuably lived.

Advice on getting started also comes from Pirke Avot; this time in Chapter One, Mishnah 14, wherein Hillel says: “If not now, when?”