We learn in another mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5, that anyone who kills a single person, it is as if they have destroyed an entire world (olam). Applying this principle to our text at the center of this page, if each person is equivalent to an olam, then in what ways do we each “stand” on din, (judgment), emet (truth), and shalom (peace/wholeness)?
Take din as our inner critic, our judge, our self-censor. This attribute can be positive — pushing us to be better versions of ourselves. It can also be negative — paralyzing us with our own perfectionism.
Emet is our “truth,” our moral compass, our personal narrative. This quality centers us and can direct us toward decisive impactful action. However, if the strength of our own emet prevents us from considering others’ narratives or truths, we risk becoming defensive and inflexible.
Shalom is our relational self that seeks community and attachment. This attribute can facilitate meaningful, loving, and authentic relationships. Our desire to get along and to belong, however, can sometimes encourage us to pathologically avoid confrontation or to constantly seek external validation.
Din, emet, and shalom operate like a system of checks and balances within each of us. Getting the correct calibration is the work of a lifetime and is a challenge we’d be wise to prioritize during this time of reflection and returning.
In Rebecca Sendor-Israel’s commentary, she probes the competing positive and negative attributes of din, emet, and shalom by reframing the universal as the individual. But how do we avoid the negative? In a parallel text, Pirkei Avot provides us with a guide to assist us in calibrating our lives as we seek to bring the positive aspects of judgment, truth, and peace into the world: “Shimon the Righteous would say, ‘On three things the world stands: on Torah, on avodah (service), and on gemilut hasidim (acts of loving-kindness).” (Pirkei Avot 1:2)
Torah, we learn, provides us with the touchstones that guide us as we attempt to bring justice into the world, both personally and on a cosmic level. It provides us with a prism through which we can attempt to intuit and identify the truth, emet, and pursue justice without the paralysis imposed by perfectionism.
Avodah in Hebrew means work, but it also describes service and worship. It suggests a seamless approach to life in which our efforts can introduce truth, divine wisdom, and goodness, Torah, into the world we inhabit. It also compels us to interact with and understand the truths experienced by other human beings, teaching tolerance, the antidote to judgmental inflexibility.
Gemilut hasidim, acts of loving-kindness, elevate tzedakah with an understanding that they emanate from the covenant between human beings and also between God and Israel.
As we approach the Days of Awe and bring into our lives Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasidim, we just might also help to introduce din, emet, and shalom into this tumultuous world.
Our rabbis postulate two different three-legged structures that serve as the foundational elements of our universe. The juxtaposition of these conceptualizations and the need to harmonize them provide a fascinating way to understand our place in the world as we approach this contemplative time of year.
The first set — din, emet, and shalom — represents values that seem to be under constant attack in our society and, as highlighted in Rebecca Sendor-Israel’s commentary, in ourselves. Din, the rule of law, is threatened today in Israel and in the United States by leaders who value their own political survival over protecting the most fundamental principles underlying democratic society and the basic structure that has kept the Jewish people together for centuries. The very concept of emet, truth, has been called into question by those who claim that any negative news is fake news. As we enter an era where bluster and instability drive international (and, often, interpersonal) relations, we veer farther away from a time defined by shalom, peace.
The second set — Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasidim — represents approaches to help us return to the principles of din, emet, and shalom. Torah, the original source of our din, has provided an anchor to help our people survive much more perilous times than we find ourselves in today. Avodah, both the introspective and interpersonal work of considering and requesting forgiveness for the harm we have caused throughout the year and the spiritual avodah of prayer and repentance, facilitates returning to emet as we consider where we ourselves have fallen short. Gemilut hasidim are those seemingly small acts that can begin to bring our world from its current state of brokenness to a place closer to shlemut, wholeness, where we might be able to approach a world characterized by shalom.