The Most Important Passuk in the Torah – World Mizrachi

By World Mizrachi Director-General, Rabbi Doron Perez

There is a fascinating debate amongst the sages of the Mishna as to what is the single most important passuk in the Torah.  Of course, every verse is in many ways equally important, as each and every one forms part of the Divinely revealed Torah.  However, it seems that certain pesukim contain central ideas which inform all of Torah living.  As such, our sages give some of them prominence as to what the totality of Torah is all about.  So, which is the one verse that seems to express the essence of our personal and collective lives more than any other? The discussion can be found in the following two sources:

Our Sages quote in a Baraita in Torat Kohanim (Chapter 4, Midrash 12)

“Love your fellow man as yourself” (Vayikra 19;18). Rabbi Akiva said this is a great principle of the Torah.

Ben Azai said, “This is the book of the generations of Adam – on the day that G-d created man, He made him in His Image” (Bereishit 5;1) is a greater principle than that.

The Great Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) in his book Netivot Olam (Netiv Ahavat Ha-Re’a) brings an addition to this Midrash, which was cited first by the author of Ein Ya’akov [Rabbi Ya’akov Ben Haviv (1460-1516) in his introduction to the book].

Ben Zoma says: We have found a more inclusive verse and it is “Shema Yisrael” (Devarim 6;4).

Ben Nanas says we have found a more inclusive verse than that and it is “Love your fellow man as yourself” (Vayikra 19;18).

Shimon Ben Pazi says we have found a more inclusive verse than that and it is “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.” (Shemot 29;39 and Bamidbar 28;4) [referring to the daily Tamid (perpetual) offering brought every morning and evening].

Rabbi Ploni stood up and said that the halacha is in accordance with Ben Pazi as it is written, “As all that I show you, the structure of the Mishkan and all its vessels: so shall you do.” (Shemot 25;9)

The first three opinions make perfect sense as they highlight some of the fundamental teachings of the Torah. Indeed, each of these three Sages focuses on a crucial aspect of what Torah is all about. Ben Azai sees in the fact that all human beings are created in G-d’s image the ultimate dignity of human value and existence. If every human being is imbued with a part of the Infinite, then indeed every human life has infinite value. Rabbi Akiva and Ben Nanas expound on this point and give it practical implication. How does one respect the G-dliness in every human being? By loving our fellow man as ourselves. As Hillel in the Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 31) puts it: “Do not do to others that which you would not like others to do to you.” One cannot claim to respect the image of G-d in others if one does not practically love others and consciously attempt not to harm them. Ben Zoma’s teaching that “Shema Yisrael” is the most important teaching also makes sense. Jews cite this morning and night, live and die by it, as it proclaims our belief in G-d’s absolute kingship and sovereignty over us and our acceptance of his mitzvot. It is this commitment which Ben Zoma says lies at the heart of all of Judaism.

What seems rather perplexing is the teaching of Shimon Ben Pazi. How does his statement about the daily offering of a lamb brought morning and evening compare with the seemingly all-encompassing statements of the previous three Sages. How can a Midrash state that the accepted view is that of Ben Pazi? After all, he talks about daily lambs and the others talk of fundamental and quintessential teachings. The Maharal in the above mentioned source answers as follows:

The explanation of Ben Pazi, who stated that the verse –“The one sheep you shall offer in the morning, etc…” is a greater teaching of the Torah is as follows. The verse emphasises that a person should serve G-d with absolute consistency on a perpetual basis, like a servant. Just as a servant does not veer from serving his master but rather serves him continuously, so should man serve G-d.

The message is clear. Ben Pazi believes the only way to transform our lives in a sustainable way is through continual daily commitment. Believing in great religious declarations of all men created in G-d’s image, stirring aspirations of love your neighbor as yourself or Divine proclamation such as “Shema Yisrael” is of course important. However, it is only through a continuous and consistent commitment, day in and day out, that change in ourselves and the world can truly be evoked. It is this commitment, stability and perpetual dedication that is at the heart of a moral and spiritual life. After all, repeated daily actions become habits. Habits in turn become ingrained character traits and character traits eventually transform the person. In many ways, Judaism is more about deed than creed and more about good actions than lofty thoughts. Without this daily commitment as the anchor of our Jewish life, spiritual beliefs and proclamations often are lost in abstractions.

Great occasions come and go. The awe of the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah passes very quickly. The cleansing sense of atonement on Yom Kippur flits by in one brief day. The momentous occasion of the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot passes by in a flash. What remains are the seemingly ordinary routine days which follow. It is for this reason that our Sages emphasized that Judaism is about everyday living – every day we are judged, every day we seek Hashem’s atonement and we view every day as if it is the very day that the Torah was given.  Indeed, our sages express this very sentiment in the first chapter of the Shema.

The verse is:

וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיוֹם עַל-לְבָבְךָ” (דברים ו, ו)”

“And these things which I command you today, should be upon your heart.” (Devarim 6,6).

On this our sages quote (Midrash, Sifrei 33, quoted in Rashi) that the day being spoken about here is in fact every day.  Every day we should feel that we are receiving the Torah as a new document, a new revelation, just as it was revealed at the initial ultimate revelation on Mount Sinai that we celebrate on Shavuot.  The message is clear:  Every day we have to re-receive and recommit to an inspired life of Torah living.  The nature of the human condition is such that as much as it is critical to celebrate the momentous occasions of Jewish history once a year, these events alone often cannot transform.  They can create great inspiration, sometimes a paradigm shift, and often a decision to change our lives.  But it is only through our daily commitment to these events, declarations and intentions, which in reality creates a lasting impression.  This is Ben Pazi’s secret.

Committing to the extraordinary in our ‘ordinary’ and everyday lives is that which ultimately transforms.

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