Pirke Avot 1:18

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says:

The world endures on three things –

justice, truth, and peace.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was probably the grandson of the Shimon of Pirke Avot 1:17.

What keeps our civilization from completely disintegrating?  Some say that has disintegrated already.  Haven’t we heard that things used to be better?  A longing for the “good old days” can be quite mistaken.  There are calls to return to the good old days of the 1950’s in this country – forgetting (?) the discrimination against African-Americans, the physically challenged, and much more.  However, there is little doubt that the social fabric within our country is frayed – particularly in our cities and in our politics (both sides now “take no prisoners”).  We might read this bit of advice with an eye toward the question – “What must we do, what must I do, to help our society function better?”

The world endures on three things – justice, truth, and peace.

Many mishnas are collections of threes.   PA 1:2 listed the three things the world stands on (Torah, service, loving-kindness).  Many of the other sayings have 3 sub-clauses.

The rabbinic tradition argues that there is no disagreement or contradiction with the advice of PA 1:2 at all.  The first posited reasons for creation in the first place, this one reasons for the continued existence of our world.

The rabbi is not talking about the continued existence of the physical world so much as the continued existence of our human society.  What are the minimum requirements for life together?

First is the expectation and need for at least rudimentary justice – without it the strong and ruthless overpower all others.   Laws, courts, and judges are a sign of civilization – assuming that they are functioning properly, without undue influence by the powerful, and with access to justice not denied to the poor or the powerless.  It is, I think, a scandal that the powerful and wealthy in this country  have systematically gutted our Legal Aid system and have little concern for the poor caught up in our justice system.


For good reason justice is often represented with an image of a scale.  Are the weights honest?  Are the concerns and legitimate issues of both parties fully present and accounted for?  Without confidence that this is the case our social world begins to grind to a halt.  One could not buy or sell with any confidence.  Aggrieved parties might begin to take the law into their own hands to secure their interests.

There is the need for telling the truth and searching for the truth– otherwise our communication with one another is pointless, our interaction with one another fruitless.  We all know that our political ads no longer seem to care whether the charges levelled against the opponent are really true.  Truth and honest debate have been sacrificed for the sake of winning the election.

The gospels tell us that Pontius Pilate, when interrogating Jesus, asked “What is truth?” – probably in a sarcastic way.  He has no time for this problematic distraction that Jesus’ very life poses.

Without seeking the truth there can be no real justice.  The burden is upon the whole of the court system – from police through to the prison system – to truly seek the truth.

And there is the over-arching need for peace – peace providing time to grow and study and learn and work.  Peace provides the final basic part of our environment as a social construct.

We don’t live on an island that has its own walls – most of us anyway!   Like Mount St. Michel in France (my picture from a recent trip to see it).  Peace will come not by building bigger walls or stronger armies or buying more battleships for defense.   Peace will come because real people, like us, want and live peace in their own lives and relationships.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Have you ever felt you were treated unjustly in some serious manner?  How did that feel?
  2. Can you think of some recent time when you settled for less than the whole truth?
  3. What are you doing to live peace in your life?