A three-legged stool is the sturdiest, the best way to create stability on uneven surfaces. The same idea can be found in mystical metaphors, where groups of three in Torah symbolize stability, unity, and the completion of a process.
In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), customarily read throughout the summer, we immediately encounter this pattern of threes. Following three teachings from the Anshei Knesses Hagdolah (sages of the Great Synagogue), the leader known as Shimon the Righteous reveals three spiritual pillars that support the world: “The world stands upon three things — upon Torah, upon divine service, and upon acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2).
The precise order of these three foundational elements entails a progression from the deepest, most internal aspect of our being to the most visible impact on the outside world: from thinking and feeling to doing. More specifically, Torah study relates to refining the mind, steadily shaping one’s thinking to align with divine guidelines. Prayer, termed “the service of the heart,” serves as an emotional stretching exercise that helps the soul circulate well within the body. This set period of reflection and reconnection prepares the person to meet the challenges of the day, helps to absorb the wisdom gained through study, so that it leads to character development and ultimately translates into tangible deeds that benefit other people.
So, just as three legs create stability in a physical structure, all three areas — increased knowledge (Torah study), emotional expansion (prayer), and visible expression (acts of kindness) — are necessary to anchor and unify a constantly changing world. Likewise, each person is “a miniature world,” and this excerpt reminds us that spiritual health cannot be achieved by only focusing on one area; there must be an emphasis on improving and finding a balance between all three.
Another group of three
At the end of the chapter (1:18), we find another triplet, which opens with a similar phrase. “Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel would say: The world is sustained by three things: justice (law), truth and peace. As is stated (Zechariah 8:16), ‘Truth, and a judgment of peace, you should administer at your [city] gates.’”
While the opening here appears to be the same as the previous Mishna, which speaks of three pillars upholding the world, the two teachings have subtle differences. The first deals with the spiritual components that uplift the world, enabling it to reach its ultimate purpose. This Mishna, in contrast, relates to the fabric of society, providing the basic components to ensure freedoms for all its citizens and a civilization that will endure.
Understanding the contexts of these teachings reveals another distinction: While the spiritual effort of a few special individuals (in Torah, prayer, and kindness) is enough to keep the world in good standing, in order to maintain a decent and prosperous civilization, everybody must embrace these three elements (law, truth, and peace).
Justice and judgment
The most important thing for any productive analysis or discussion is to define the buzzwords or terms before moving to explore practical resolutions. These three Hebrew expressions used in the Mishna are loaded with meanings.
The word used for “justice” here is din (lit. law or judgment), and often refers to establishing qualified judges to oversee disputes, reminiscent of the instruction, “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deuteronomy 15:20). In Jewish law, the process of making the correct judgment demands careful consideration of the claims coming from both sides and appropriately applying the Torah’s principles.
In a broader context, the term “justice” implies more than legislation; it must entail rectification of some immoral act, the attempt to ensure that what is right prevails. In Hebrew, the more accurate word for this type of “justice” is tzedek, which also means “righteousness.”
Behind any notion of justice is the belief that people have free choice and are, therefore, responsible for their actions. When there is a clear perpetrator, it is easier to determine the appropriate consequence within the law. But in many cases, especially when large groups are concerned, the just path is not clear-cut. There are many variables to consider. Certain judgments bring unintended consequences. Furthermore, if, when trying to achieve justice, you knowingly harm innocent people, then you may have achieved the very opposite.
So, when weighing the many factors, one must find a framework for determining justice. And the first step in any ethical discussion is to ask: “What’s your system for deciding what’s right in any given case? And what if the focus on one moral principle comes at the expense of another?”
Here is where the second ingredient — “truth” — comes into play, to ensure that there is sound judgment guiding justice.
What is truth?
The pursuit of any truth requires a person to place personal feelings aside and strive to see things objectively. A distinct trait to arrive at truth is the ability to consider conflicting perspectives and see the big picture. That is why the world for truth in Hebrew is composed of three letters (alef-mem-taf), which are the first, middle, and last letters of the alphabet. This also conveys the idea that truth (and morality) does not change.
But when one’s thinking is colored by emotions it is easy to forget the complexity involved in certain topics. Instead, the heart navigates the path toward justice. The movement to find a solution stems from a powerful feeling — a deep sense of pain, empathy, or even rage — which often propels reckless judgment and action. At that point, the person can no longer listen to reason, even when it is staring them in the face, because the sole moral authority is the heart.
So, this second ingredient of truth — adhering to a higher moral code beyond personal feelings or agendas — is what infuses clarity and sound judgment into justice to help distinguish between actual justice and a blend of impure emotions, such as random revenge. Interestingly, the biblical phrase commonly used to convey an act of justice — “an eye for an eye” — has never been taken literally in Jewish tradition, or used as a call to violence, but is rather explained as referring to monetary compensation given directly by the offender to the victim.
What is peace?
Once these two elements of justice (law) and truth (the ability to make proper moral distinctions) are intact, the final quality of peace arrives. The simple form of peace is lack of conflict between governments or individuals. The deeper concept is not only freedom from harm, but a sense of harmony between two previously conflicting entities.
Once again, the number three appears when explaining the path to peace in Jewish thought: To resolve the tension between two conflicting sides requires a higher moral authority (or leadership), a third element which serves as a unifying force.
We allude to this principle every day in our prayers, at the conclusion of the Amidah and Kaddish, with the famous line: “He who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.”
This praise of peace in the heavens refers to the two archangels, Michael and Gabriel, whose instinctive modes of divine service (symbolized by kindness and judgment, or fire and water) naturally clash. To unify these two opposing mystical elements, a superior third element must intervene. Thus, we say that just as God keeps the peace between the angels Michael and Gabriel, though they represent opposites, so too may He “make peace for us and for all Israel.”
In line with our theme, when justice (and judgment) is accompanied by truthfulness, the result will be a greater unity and purpose revealed on earth
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.