Avot 1:2—Shimon the Just was among the survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: The world stands on three things—on Torah, on spiritual service, and on kind deeds.
The second lesson in Pirkei Avot is familiar to many of us as the song Al Shlosha D’varim.
It teaches that Torah study, spiritual growth (Avodah), and acts of lovingkindness (G’milut Chasadim) constitute a kind of three-legged stool. As Rabbi Yanklowitz notes, in this understanding, each leg is not merely one-third of the whole stool’s support; each is, instead, absolutely essential—lacking just one, the entire structure collapses.
Why are these particular three things the pillars of the Jewish world? To answer this, I turn to the wisest graduation speech I have ever heard, delivered by Miss Patti, the director of the Montessori House for Children, at my daughter Tanya’s kindergarten graduation. Her topic was: “The Head, the Heart, and the Hand.”
“Use your heads,” she advised her young charges and their parents. “Think about your choices and their consequences. This is how we change and grow.”
“Cherish your hearts,” she added. “Nurture compassion. Acknowledge your full range of feelings and emotions. This is how we open ourselves to one another and to the countless gifts the world offers every day.”
“And put your hands to good work,” she concluded. Turn your thoughts and feelings into positive actions. Make a difference. Help others. Repair what is broken. Fix what is unfair. Create beauty.”
Miss Patti—a proud Basque Catholic—didn’t know Talmud, but her categories of head, heart, and hand correspond perfectly with Shimon the Just’s three imperatives. Learning—Torah— is all about the head, the radical notion that through knowledge of self and others, we can improve ourselves and our communities. Spiritual service—Avodah—is the language of the heart, the path of love, compassion, and emotional awareness that gives the spirit wings. And kind deeds—G’milut Chasadim—are the work of the hand, the way we put ethics and emotion into action, sowing seeds of peace and liberation in our broken world. Each is indispensable; all three are inextricably bound together.
Head. Hands. Heart.
Torah, Avodah, G’milut Chasadim.
This is our sacred Jewish calling.