Updated: Mar 9, 2020
The famous mishna in Pirkei Avot: “The world stands on three things – on Torah learning, and on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness” can lead us to a deeper understanding of the cataclysmic events described in Parshat Noach. It emerges that the events chronicled by the Torah concerning the great flood, which swept away the world, are really a powerful lesson: human civilisation rests not only on its physical infrastructure, but on its moral and spiritual infrastructure too. Torah learning, avodah and acts of kindness. On our relationship with ourselves, our Creator and our fellow. These are the three pillars on which the world stands. These are the foundations that every person needs to live a life of substance – and greatness.
Why was the world destroyed?
Parshat Noach tells the story of the great flood that destroyed the world. A torrential downpour that continued unabated for weeks and literally washed away human civilisation, and everything with it.
The parsha relates how the world had fallen into a state of decay, a place of such inhumanity and moral degradation that there was no way back; it had to be razed to its very foundations so that humanity could begin afresh.
There’s a mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:2) that leads us to a deeper understanding of these events. The mishna says: “The world stands on three things – on Torah learning, and on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness.” Why these three things? The Maharal says that they correspond to the three key relationships: our relationship with G-d, our relationships with other people, and our relationship with ourselves. Each of these three areas needs to be refined and sanctified.
How do they connect?
The Maharal explains that Torah learning refines and elevates us. It connects us to G-d’s blueprint for living a meaningful existence and achieving greatness, and enables us to perfect, refine and elevate ourselves, achieving an inner harmony by aligning ourselves with the Will of our Creator, connecting us with our inner G-dliness.
Avodah, service, refers to the service in the Temple, and prayer specifically, but the Maharal says it refers more broadly to all of the mitzvot through which we “serve” G-d. So where Torah learning is about acquiring knowledge and wisdom and insight, avodah is about putting those acquisitions to practical use: following G-d’s instructions, leading a life in accordance with His commandments, elevating and perfecting our relationship with Him.
“Acts of kindness” refers to everything we do for other people – reaching out to others in love and support – building our connection with those around us.
These three areas are the template for achieving personal greatness. The Torah, with its broad and all-encompassing ideas, values and mitzvot, is essentially a holistic programme for perfecting and elevating these three relationships. And each is important, and cannot be neglected, if we are to achieve a fully formed spiritual greatness.
The Maharal makes the point that when the mishna says: “The world stands on three things” it actually refers to the human being, who is the pinnacle and purpose of creation. G-d created the universe as a platform for humankind to use our free choice to achieve moral and spiritual greatness; to become G-dly by emulating G-d Himself. The mishna in Sanhedrin says that to destroy one life is to destroy a world, and to save one life is to save a world. Every human life is a world unto itself, and the mishna in Pirkei Avot is teaching us that these three things on which the world stands are also the three things on which our lives stand.
The idea is that without these moral and spiritual pillars that hold up the world, our lives are always going to lack the foundations they need to stand firm. They constitute the basic infrastructure that holds together not just the entire universe, but our very lives – they underpin reality as we know it.
The Maharal points out that the generation of the flood was destroyed because these three key pillars holding up the world had been completely eroded by the inhumanity and corrupt culture of that generation. The world at the time was rife with violent robbery, idolatry and sexual immorality (see Genesis 6:11, 6:12, Sanhedrin 57a). Says the Maharal, each of these sins serves to counteract one of the three pillars outlined above.
Idolatry, serving false gods and values, stands in direct opposition to avodah, service of the Creator – it destroys our relationship with God. Violent robbery, taking by force something that belongs to another, stands in direct opposition to acts of kindness, and destroys our relationship with our fellow person. And sexual immorality, a mode of behaviour that is primal and animalistic, stands in direct opposition to Torah learning, a way of elevating ourselves above the animal and towards the Divine, and that embodies the most intellectual/spiritual side of humanity. Sexual immorality, which is driven by a basic lack of self-control, destroys our relationship with ourselves.
We see, then, that the generation of the flood completely undermined the spiritual and moral foundations of the world. The flood waters washed away a world that had already destroyed itself.
Then a great rebirth takes place. In the Torah portions that follow Noach, these three pillars become the foundations on which the Jewish people are built, and with their rebuilding, restore the world to a position of stability. The Maharal says that each of the founding fathers of the Jewish people personified and re-established a pillar. Abraham, with his endless reserves of compassion and kindness and hospitality, embodied acts of kindness. Isaac exemplified service through his stoic agreement to be brought as a sacrifice, demonstrating his unswerving devotion to G-d. And Jacob, who upheld the pillar of Torah learning, and represented the refinement and elevation of self, is described as the one who “dwelled in tents” – referring, says the Midrash, to his immersion in Torah learning.
Ultimately, from this mishna in Pirkei Avot, it emerges that the events chronicled by the Torah concerning the great flood that swept away the world are really a powerful lesson that human civilisation rests not only on its physical infrastructure, but on its moral and spiritual infrastructure as well.
Torah learning, service of G-d, acts of kindness. Our relationship with ourselves, our Creator and our fellow. These are the three pillars on which the world stands. These are the foundations that every person requires to live a life of greatness. Uplifting them, sanctifying them and strengthening them is our life’s work.