Simeon the Just as one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: The world stands on three things: on Torah, Divine worship, and acts of love and kindness. Pirkei Avot, Perek I, mishnah 2. … this great Sage emphasizes that the three pillars upon which the world of Judaism rests are Torah, the study and fulfillment of Torah; avodah, service to G-d, and g'milath hasadim, man's kindness in action to his fellow man. This three-fold characterization of Judaism is contained in the famous High Holiday prayer: "Penitence, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree." Penitence is possible only where a knowledge of Torah induces a sense of guilt; prayer is, of course, the service of the heart (it too is called avodah in Hebrew); and charity is the implementation of g'milath hasadim. The importance of this teaching for the modern Jew lies in its call for totality and balance. Too often today we meet the person who trumpets forth the size of his charitable contributions and proclaims: "So long as I give charity and exhibit a generous heart, I can safely ignore the elements of Torah and avodah." We also have the person who maintains that since he goes faithfully to the synagogue every single day, he is absolved from giving to charity. What Simeon the Just would have us remember is that one is required to be a total Jew by making a total commitment to Torah, avodah, and g'milath hasadim. In the High Holiday prayer that we mentioned, the Mahzor [prayerbook-AJL] reproduces three words above the three subjects of the sentence. They are tzom, fasting; kol, voice; and mamon, money; these are approximate synonyms or associated terms for penitence, prayer and charity respectively. However, these three additions when regarded from the aspect of their numerical value [gematria-AJL], are actually equivalent, each consisting of 136. Any two together, therefore, equal 272, and all three total 408. With this in mind, we can offer an interesting interpretation of the verse, "A man of brutish instincts (ba'ar) does not know, and a fool will not comprehend this (zoth) (Psalms 92:7). The numerical value of the word ba'ar is 272, and the numerical value of zoth is 408! Substituting for these multiples of 136, meanings in terms of our triad --penitence, prayer and charity--we emerge with the points just made. We are acquainted with a man who does not know, ba'ar--272, who ignores two of the required three principles. And we even know of the fool who does not comprehend zoth--408, all three of these pillars of Judaism. There are people who feel that by remaining loyal to only one aspect of Judaism they are fulfilling their obligation. But surely this is foolishness! We can extend this approach farther, and in a similar manner interpret the verse, "With this, b'zoth, Aaron shall come into the sanctuary" [this verse]. Only with the "408" – – with the total of all three activities, should the cohen gadol, the high priest enter the holy of holies on Yom Kippur. Should he approach the Almighty with only a part of the totality of Judaism, then he cannot adequately represent his people. Anything less than total Judaism is a truncated Judaism, an unbalanced version. Judaism, in a sense, resembles a tripod, a structure resting on three legs. Remove any one of the three supports and the structure will collapse. If a person be learned but not observant, if he be charitable but not disposed to worship, then he cannot possibly experience a full religious life. Such defective religiosity is bound to be shaky and is destined to topple.
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