My children are growing up. Long gone are the hectic mornings of breakfast cereal and desperately packing school lunches. My older son, now grown and living on his own, has inherited the habit of drinking a big cup of coffee (or two) before tackling his day. Though he lives on his own, this habit has become a sweet ritual we share when he is visiting.
One morning, as we were drinking together on the porch and enjoying the fresh morning air, he asked the strangest question.
“Abba, how do I know you love me?”
I almost choked on my coffee. This is actually typical of many of the conversations we have (he is quite philosophical), but after half a lifetime of devotion, how can I answer that? How can I prove to him that I breathe? How can I prove that the earth is round? These are all too obvious to be answered. But I remember him asking those questions when he was a small boy. This new query had to be answered as well.
Should I remind him of the birthday parties? The extravagant gifts? The anxiety-filled trips to the doctor? No. They were important but they were not proof of love.
“Do you remember which cereal you ate every morning as a kid?” I asked
“Sure,” he said. “Corn flakes.”
“Did you ever miss a morning?”
“I dunno,” he said.
“I do know,” I said. “You never missed a morning. One time, we were out of corn flakes and you looked so sad that I ran to the store in my pajamas to get a box. After that, no matter how tired I was, there was always a box of cornflakes waiting for you when you woke up.”
We sat in contented silence, sipping coffee. I had answered the unanswerable question.
I remembered this exchange with my son when I was reviewing the Torah portion of Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1). After the bombastic episode in which Phinehas displays his zealous love of God by a very public display of passion, the counting of the nation, the command to divide up the land and the request by the daughters of Zelophehad to inherit their father’s portion, and the command to appoint Joshua in place of Moses, the Torah settles into an account of the daily sacrifices.
It was the verses about daily sacrifice that reminded me of my conversation with my son. Because it is with this verse that Shimon ben Pazi answers the question of the sages: “What is the most important verse in the Torah?”
How can you answer such a question? How can you ask such a question? And why does Shimon ben Pazi point to this mundane section in the Torah in order to provide the most important verse in the Five Books of Moses?
In order to answer this question, let’s first take a closer look at the conversation of the sages. There is actually a debate about what the most important verse in the Torah is, and which verse contains the most central idea to living a Torah life.
In one source, the sages offer two possible answers to this question:
- Rabbi Akiva claimed the most important verse in the Torah was, “Love your fellow as yourself: I am Hashem.” (Leviticus 19:18)
- Ben Azai claimed it was the verse, “When Hashem created man, He made him in the likeness of Hashem;” (Genesis 5:1)
Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), also addressed this question in his book Netivot Olam, bringing other sources:
- Ben Zoma claimed the verse, “Hear, O Yisrael! Hashem is our God, Hashem alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
- Ben Nanas said we have found a more inclusive verse than that and it is “Love your fellow man as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
- Shimon Ben Pazi said 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.” (Exodus 29;39) and (Numbers 28;4). These verses refer to the daily perpetual offering brought every morning and evening.
Rabbi Ploni ruled that the correct answer is in accordance with Ben Pazi.
Of all the verses in the Torah including the important verses brought by the other scholars, why would the conclusion be that verses dealing with the daily sacrifices be deemed the most significant? Aren’t the other verses brought by the other sages so much more all-encompassing and meaningful?
When serving God, true service is not defined by the special events, the bursts of enthusiasm, or moments of aspirations to holiness. These are certainly important, and serve to propel us forward. But the follower of God is someone who serves Him every minute of every day.
Judaism has what we call “Yom Kippur Jews,” Jews who show up to synagogue once a year on the Day of Atonement. It is praiseworthy that once a year a person remembers that he has to repent. Plaques are hung for impressive donations to the synagogue.
But the real praise should be given to the Jews who serve God on a daily basis; who have gotten into the habit of reaching into their pockets for spare change whenever they see a person in need.
My love for my son was best expressed in those everyday moments of caring for him. In the corn flakes. Sure, the birthdays and special moments were important. They also made for some great memories. But all of the birthdays and special occasions were contained within those everyday moments.
Judaism and serving God are about the everyday-ness. The crossing of the sea and Mount Sinai were formative moments in the history of the nation, but their dedication is best expressed in how they serve him on a daily basis. This is best expressed in the daily sacrifices which were brought day in and day out without fail. The most important verse in the Torah, therefore, is the one that describes this type of service.