"Shimon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness." - Pirkei Avot 1:2
This is perhaps one of the most famous mishanyot (oral law teachings) from Pirkei Avot, often translated as Ethics of the Fathers. As an aside, I believe this translation is in error, and that a better translation exists for the title of the work; avot, or fathers, is a word that is usually reserved exclusively for the three forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but no one else. In fact, this notion is codified as a talmudic ruling in Masechet Brachot. Here, the word "avot" would be better translated as major principles, a meaning which it has in other sections of the Mishna (e.g. arba'ah avot nezikin, etc.). In that case, the work would be titled "The Chapters of Funadmenatal Principles."
Clasically, I always understood the three-fold approach in the Mishna as referring to study, prayer, and kindness as the three main substructual categories by which a person can serve the Creator. Recently, when studying this teaching, it dawned on me that it's saying something similar but entirely different, and the meaning I've been assuming for years isn't nearly precise enough. In my haste to read more, I had failed to think adequately about the intent and deeper meaning, and so repeated this teaching dozens of times without ever really appreciating its message.
First and foremost, it must be noted that these three things are literally pillars of the world. What does that mean? Images of Atlas physically supporting the planet immediately pop up in my mind. Definitively not the intended meaning. Rather, this is a statement of ontological reality, and these are the principles at the very heart of existence.
I humbly submit that "Torah" here refers not to study per se, but to the notion of revelation as a relationship. The Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the universe) calls out to his creation with imperatives of ethical living. We respond to a calling and hold ourself to a standard because God has left His silo, so to speak, and chose to assume names, qualities, and presence in our lives. To phrase it another way, Torah here represents the most simple and basic notion that God chose to create; as the Midrash teaches, God looked into the Torah and created the world. As Rav Kook notes in his commentary to the siddur, the notion of a Living Torah so popular in our faith means that the Torah is a uniter and actual source of life. This first act of literally indescribable love, benevolence, and kindness on the part of God and His reaching out to humans and all of His creation is the first foundational relationship.
"Avodah," divine worship, had always symbolized prayer to me. However, from a perspective of relationship, it stands for man's great reach for the Divine. If Torah describes the room God creates for man, then Avodah describes the ways we attempt to invite God into our lives. Jewish prayer, requesting and noting the godliness of our salaries, health, desires, spiritual growth, national status, and all the rest of the classical prayer topics, represents a main way in which we reach up (or should I say in) to bring God into our lives, or alternatively, to become more godly ourselves. Our quest to connect in response to Torah represents the second pillar of existence; as the prophet Jeremiah noted long ago, with the world was created for Brit, covenant. That we should reach beyond our limited circumstances to connect to the greatness beyond is another of creations causes.
"Gemillut Chasadim," acts of loving-kindness, represent the third leg of the relationship. Caring for others is not merely a third avenue of divinely endorsed comportment, it is a metaphysical fundamental. This represents our mutual reaching out to one another, as nivraim, creations, recognizing that we are all of us merely part of a much greater whole, charged with overcoming our individuality and learning to care without boundary for each other and all things. This spirit manifests compassionate, responsible treatment of the animal and even plant kingdoms, and should cause us to act in harmony with our environment and planet. It is related to an internalization of the other legs (true knowledge of God brings about an understanding of ultimate unity and a sense of communion with nature and all that is). Physically and metaphysically, then, the world and society stand as a result of our concern with each other.