In Pirkei Avot, the ethical teaching of our rabbinic sages, there are two descriptions of three things that sustain the world, from two different authorities. Shimon the Righteous says that “the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety” (Mishnah Avot 1:2). Later in the same chapter Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel asserts that “on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace” (Mishnah Avot 1:18).
The statement of Shimon the Righteous is the better known, particularly in synagogues, which often use it as a mission statement: the Jewish community focuses on Torah, prayer, and acts of kindness. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel’s statement, however, is more universal. It’s important to note the differences in these sages’ perspectives. For Shimon the Righteous it is the actions of the Jewish community that sustains the world, while Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel sees the acceptance of important values as the key.
The Mishnah includes the voices of both of these major scholars. The Jewish community must put its attention to our own needs – teaching Torah, providing prayer services, and helping those in need. Equally important are the universal values of justice, truth and peace.
Today our country is in desperate need of Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel’s teaching. For so many people of color, justice is elusive. Daily they are victims of the casual racism that sends a message that they are not valued at the same level of white people. At the same time, they face systemic discrimination from authorities through racial profiling and brutality.
In our hyper-mediated world, truth is a precious commodity. Falsehoods, half-truths and flat out lies are spread on social media which fan the flames of fear, hatred and violence. A Chabad center in California was accused of placing baskets of rocks on sidewalks for looters and vandals to use. The reality is that the rocks were part of security bollards placed in front of the Chabad to protect it after synagogues again became the target of violent anti-Semitism in the last few years.
A centerpiece of any great society is its ability to resolve conflict peacefully. When contentious issues divide us, how do we come together, talk about difficult issues, and find common ground without resort to violence? The brutal and unnecessary death of George Floyd has brought thousands of peaceful protesters to the streets to demand important change. Just because a small number of people take advantage of the situation for looting and violence does not mean we can ignore the message of the demonstrators.
We all pray for peace in this moment, but we must remember that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel’s statement include three elements – justice, truth and peace. Like a three-legged stool, remove any one element and the world will not stand. Today we see the chaos that results from the lack of these values in our society. May we all reach within ourselves to find ways to fill our world with more justice, more truth, and more peace.