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הוּא (שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק) הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. (א:ב)

Torah

The second mishnah of Avot begins its description of the world’s three pillars with Torah. Though all three pillars are important, Torah learning reigns supreme. We remind ourselves of this fact each morning when we conclude our recital of the berachot related to Torah learning with the mishnah in Pei’ah which teaches that “talmud Torah k'neged kulam” — the significance of Torah learning is equal to that of the aggregate of all other mitzvot. Understandably, the Gemara in Megillah tells us that learning Torah learning is more “gadol” — of greater value — than the building of the Beit Hamikdash, honoring one’s parents, and even saving a life.

This explains why the world's existence hinges upon Torah learning. The Gemara understands the Torah’s formulation of the sixth day of creation as “yom hashishi” as opposed to “shishi” like the description of previous days (“yom echad,” “yom sheni,” “yom shlishi,” etc.) as teaching that that Hashem conditioned creation on a future special sixth day — the sixth day of Sivan when the Torah was given. Had we not committed ourselves to Torah, the world would have been returned to “tohu vavohu” (nothingness). Rav Chaim Volozhin understood that creation not only hinged on the original kabbalat HaTorah, but also continues to rely upon continuous Torah learning — if there would be even one moment completely bereft of Torah learning, the world would cease to exist.

Talmud Torah is not just the world’s purpose, it is also the unique purpose and mission of the Jewish people. As the mishnah tells us in the second perek of Avot, “If you have learned much Torah, do not take special credit; it is simply why you were created.” The world was created to be a context for Torah learning; the Jewish people were created as the specific vehicle.

Why is talmud Torah so important? Firstly, it is the one pursuit we can (and should) devote our free time to. While chessed is performed in response to the situation of another’s need and tefillah is recited three times a day, Torah can be learned at any and every free moment. It is the constant that should fill our lives with meaning. Additionally, through Torah learning we transcend our world and meet Hashem through His wisdom. Though this is true, to a certain extent, for all mitzvot and forms of Avodat Hashem, when learning Torah, we connect with Him by immersing ourselves in His thought.

Avodah

But Torah is not the only pillar. Avodah is also important. Theoretical study is not enough for the world’s and our own existence. They also require our demonstration of appreciation of and commitment to Hashem. A korban expresses this appreciation as well as our interest to give to and sacrifice for Hashem. As with all relationships, we reinforce our commitment and closeness to Hashem through gift and sacrifice.

Kayin and Hevel were the first (the Torah mentions) to bring korbanot. When Noach brought a korban upon exiting the teivah, Hashem responded with his promise to continuously sustain the world. When we show our appreciation of and commitment to Hashem, He commits to us and our world.

Of course, today, we are unable to offer korbanot. We offer our tefillot instead. The Gemara teaches that the tefillot of communities throughout Eretz Israel prayed during the offering of the korban tamid used to sustain the world; today, our tefillot play this role. In certain ways, tefillot are even greater than korbanot. Our petition of Hashem for our needs expresses our recognition of our dependence upon and our interest in a relationship with Him.

The Rambam extends the pillar of avodah beyond korbanot and tefillah by explaining that the mishnah uses korbanot as a paradigm for mitzvot in general. Ultimately, korbanot are significant because they are how we fulfill Hashem’s commandment (to sacrifice them). We serve Hashem in a similar way by observing any and all of the mitzvot.

Gemilut Chasadim

The third pillar is chessed. One might have thought that personal development and commitment to Hashem would be enough to sustain the world. Our mishnah teaches us that this is incorrect. In fact, the navi Micha presents care for others (in contrast to korbanot) as central to what Hashem wants from us in this world. Korbanot and Avodat Hashem are, of course, important, but Hashem wants us to serve Him (also) by caring about and for his creations — particularly those He created in His image.

Hashem created the world as an act of chessed. He, of course, does not need the world; He created it for us. Our deeds of chesed are our way of giving back. Rav Avraham Chaim Feuer explains that this is why the mishnah uses the term gemilut chasadim — our chesed is a way of “paying Hashem back” for His. By assisting others created in His image, we show our appreciation of the fact that we, too, were created this way.

Torah and Ma’asim Tovim

Chessed is an important complement to Talmud Torah. The Gemara compares one involved in only Torah learning but not chessed to one who has no G-d. One focused only upon himself lacks a meaningful relationship with Hashem. As we saw, Torah learning can be “gadlus” — greater than other mitzvot, but if taken to a self-centered extreme, it can also be godless. Torah learning is gadlus when it inspires us to care for Hashem’s other creations.

This is why we celebrate Torah and ma’asim tovim (good deeds) as the goals and epitome of life. The mishnah in the sixth perek of Avot tells of Rebbi Yossi Ben Kisma’s rejection of a substantial monetary offer aimed at convincing him to move to a city lacking a strong Torah presence. Rebbi Yossi explained his refusal with the fact that we take only Torah learning and good deeds with us to the next world. This is why Torah and maasim tovim are the life goals we wish for a newborn baby and mothers daven for each week when they light candles. The two together are how we serve Hashem completely.

The Three-Legged Stool

Put together, these three foci — Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chassadim — are what the world exists for and what we, therefore, should be focused upon. May appreciating this help us maximize our lives and our contribution to sustaining the world.