“By three things is the world sustained...”
This morning while anticipating commitments in the month of October, I turned the page of my beautiful Jewish art calendar to peruse the coming month and fill in the necessary appointments. On the art page facing October, beautifully and mystically wrapped by a 12 pointed star (created by superimposing 3 Stars of David) are these words: By three things is the world sustained: by justice, by truth and by peace.
The words come from the Pirkei Avot, a work that is often translated as “Ethics of Our Fathers”.
I don’t have a lot of familiarity with Pirkei Avot, but I have heard these familiar lines from the same body of wisdom:
“If I am only for myself, who am I?”
“Say little and do much”
“You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to desist from it.”
The daily headlines in The Boston Globe are disheartening and frightening, filled with immature name calling, treacherous threats, post hurricane anguish, NFL protests, more name calling and on and on.
As I it sit with the ancient words in front of me - meditating on them, if you will, I find them by turns, challenging, condemning, and filled with hope.
If indeed, the world is sustained by justice, by truth and by peace, then we are on very shaky ground in this, what used to be considered a shining, democracy. In too many spheres, justice seems owned by the white and the wealthy. Truth suddenly has many “alternatives.” Peace seems more fragile than a spider web in a storm.
From a highly placed UN podium, the word is declared: every nation for itself! And I feel a profound loss - a shrinking of the expansive boundaries of generosity, of international commitment to one another’s wellbeing, of dependable friendships that help to keep this planet viable for human existence. If I am only for myself, who am I ?”
So many words - - too many words - - swords rattling and rampant rumors of war as destructive wordiness fills the headlines. Ineffective wordiness in the houses of Congress; hyperbolic wordiness and juvenile insults on Twitter and in public rallies - but no positive and creative action on health care or tax reform; no humane development of a sane immigration policy; no life embracing action toward preserving the life of the earth. I wonder what “the Fathers” encountered as they concluded it was wise to ”Say little and do much.”
Still, I am encouraged by the faithful energy of this small island community. Together we meet for interfaith study about how to instill in our young people an ethic of concern for “the other” as we read “ACTS OF FAITH” by Eboo Patel. The book plainly lets us know that even as young people can be taught to hate and fear, they can also be taught to embrace and care for the stranger - - faith communities and and schools need to be more proactive. I am encouraged by the annual “Living Local” festival at the Agricultural Hall, with booths and displays drawn from every corner of island life in an attempt to educate us all about our role in sustaining the holy life of this planet.
A premier island grocer is figuring out how to sustain his profits while providing steep discounts for islanders to be sure that our elders and our immigrant population can afford to shop in his markets. These modest efforts are thousands of miles from the centers of power. We are in a place where we might be tempted to throw up our hands in helpless despair at things over which we have little control. But the ancient wisdom dictates otherwise. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
If, indeed, the world is sustained by justice, by truth, and by peace, then even a small island in the Atlantic is both judged and challenged...and blessed by the “Ethics of Our Fathers.” We dare not lose sight of the power of simple actions that keep faith with the care and concern for others and for the earth in focus. And even though we may have cause to wonder if the grass roots actions we take have any effect on the whole in the end, we are never free to simply slack off and hope that someone else will do the job.