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Isha Bekia

Tetzaveh – The Core Values of Judaism (Edited Transcript)

Feb 10, 2011 | Weekly Parsha


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Sometimes people engage in hypothetical discussions and through the analysis of these hypothetical questions and their answers we can learn a lot about ourselves and others.  For example, someone might ask the following: if you could have three wishes granted, what would they be?  This is a hypothetical question – we know we can’t just wish for anything and it will happen – but looking at what three things you would choose tells you a lot about yourself.  This hypothetical question serves as a window to who you are and what you value.
The Sages of the Talmud pose the following hypothetical question: what is the most important verse in the Torah?  This is hypothetical because every single verse is important.  In fact, Maimonides explains that the obligation to believe that the Torah is G-d-given extends to every single word and every single letter of the Five Books of Moses; they all come from G-d and are of equal value.  Thus, if a person denies any sentence in the Five Books or even something seemingly minor, this constitutes heresy.  Every single word and even every letter is valuable because it is G-d’s word; who are we to judge which verse is “more important” or “less important”?
The central values of Judaism
However, the Talmudic Sages debate this point not to be able to give a final answer as to which particular verse is most important, but rather to clarify what are the central values of Judaism.  In discussing what, hypothetically speaking, is the most important verse in the Torah, we get a glimpse into the philosophy and ideology of Judaism.
One opinion says the most important verse is from Deuteronomy, Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.”  We can understand the importance of this verse, as it declares G-d’s unity, that there are no other gods, and that G-d is the only source of everything in the world.
A second opinion says the most important verse is from Leviticus, Ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, “Love your fellow as yourself.”  This verse, too, we can understand as being of the utmost importance.  We know the great sage Rabbi Akiva said, regarding this verse, zeh klal gadol baTorah, this is one of the great principles of the Torah, to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
Then comes a third opinion and says the most important verse in the Torah is from this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, which discusses the Korban Tamid, the continual offering brought every single day in the Temple: Et hakeves ha’echad ta’aseh vaboker, v’et hakeves hasheini ta’aseh bein ha’arbayim, “the one lamb shall be brought in the morning and the other lamb shall be brought at dusk.”
Of these three opinions, the first two verses make sense to us, as they are clearly very important when it comes to distilling the essence of Judaism’s philosophy; the unity of G-d and the love of human beings are two fundamental pillars of Judaism.  The third verse, however, seems unusual; how do we understand this verse regarding the Korban Tamid, the continual offering, as being central to Jewish philosophy?
Gratitude is a central value in Judaism
One of our great commentators from the 15th century, Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel, a great Jewish scholar who was also the Minister of Finance in the government of King Ferdinand of Spain, explains that the concept of a daily offering relates to one of the core values of Judaism and that is gratitude.  Gratitude underpins the two values mentioned above, acknowledging one G-d and loving our fellow man.
It is important to note that when we speak about the daily offering we have to realise that although we no longer have our Temple or sacrificial services, we do have a modern version of the offering and that is prayer.  After the Temple was destroyed, prayers came to replace the sacrifices.  The morning prayers, Shacharit, replace the daily offering brought in the morning, and the late afternoon prayers, Mincha, replace the daily offering brought at dusk.  These prayers were instituted by our Sages and the structure of these prayers was based on the offerings and the service in the Temple.  Thus, whatever is said in respect of these offerings can be applied to our daily prayers as well.
Collective and individual gratitude
According to the Abarbanel, the daily offering – and consequently our daily prayers  – are all about gratitude to G-d.  We express our gratitude to G-d in the morning and in the evening, when the day begins and when the day ends.  The Abarbanel explains this on two levels, the national and the individual.  On the national level,  the morning offering/prayers represent our gratitude for an event which took place in the morning: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  The evening offering/prayers represent our gratitude for an event which took place at night: the Exodus from Egypt.  Thus, the daily offerings/prayers remind us of the gratitude we feel toward G-d for giving us the Torah and for taking us out of Egypt.
On an individual level, we wake up in the morning and show gratitude to G-d for being granted another day of life.  When we wake up in the morning we say Modeh ani lefanecha, “I thank You, G-d, for returning my soul into my body.”  All the morning blessings we have were instituted to show our gratitude to G-d and demonstrate that we do not take for granted that we have been given another day of life; that we can stand straight on our own two feet; that we can get dressed and walk.  We are grateful for life itself.  The late afternoon offering/prayers are for having been sustained throughout the day.  We are grateful for our parnasa, our livelihood, and for actually making it through the day.
Now we can understand why this particular verse was selected by the Sages of the Talmud as one of the most important verses in the Torah.  It represents gratitude – to G-d, and to our fellow human beings – which is the foundation of everything.  The basis for all decent human behaviour – mentschlichkeit, as we say in Yiddish – is gratitude.  A person who lacks gratitude lacks the basics of what it means to be a mentsch, of what it means to be a decent human being.
The importance of consistency and commitment
There is another explanation for why this verse specifically underscores Judaism’s core philosophy.  The Maharal of Prague explains that this verse was chosen as one of the most important verses in the service of G-d because it is about consistency and commitment, day in and day out.  The daily offerings – and nowadays our daily prayers – represent a  commitment and consistency in serving G-d.  The Maharal explains that it is not just about seeing a project through to the end and remaining committed to something after the initial excitement of it has died down, but rather it is referring to a commitment that permeates our essence and goes to the very core of our identity.
To illustrate this point, let’s take an example from employment law: there are two kinds of people who can work for you, an employee and an independent contractor.  An independent contractor does not really work for you; he does the job, but he doesn’t work for you – he works for himself.  You can employ someone to work at your house and do the laundry or you can send your clothes to the Laundromat.  The Laundromat is an independent contractor – they don’t work for you; they are doing a job for you but they really work for themselves as they own the business.
The fundamental – and practical – difference is who owns the time.  An employee’s time is your time; you “buy” their time.  An independent contractor owns his own time; you buy their skills and they will choose when and how to do the job.
The question we have to ask ourselves is this: G-d has given us numerous tasks to do in this world.  Are we His employees or independent contractors?  There are those who think of themselves as independent contractors.  They think, I will keep the 613 commandments, but on my own time.  They say, don’t worry, G-d, the job will get done.
What the Maharal is saying here (though he doesn’t use the example above to explain it) is that the centrality of the daily offering reminds us that we are, in fact, G-d’s employees and not independent contractors working on our own time.  He owns our time and He owns us.  The constant commitment means that we are His servants.  This is why this verse about the continual offering is so fundamental to what Judaism is all about.  Unity of G-d is important; love of our fellow man is important; and consistency and commitment are also important, and are in fact one of the pillars on which Judaism’s philosophy is founded.
The role of religion
In the modern-day world people view religion as a “service provider.”  We have all kinds of needs – physical, emotional, and even spiritual – and we contract various service providers to fulfil each of these needs.  We might contract with a doctor to address our physical needs, purchase a self-help book or contract with a psychologist to help with our emotional needs.  And in the modern view, we contract with religion to address our spiritual needs.  The common denominator of all these service providers is that they are there to serve me.  I am the centre of it, and I will bring in various people to serve me.  But contrary to conventional wisdom of the 21st century, Judaism maintains that religion is not about me, it’s about service of the other: G-d and our fellow human beings.
Rabbi Soloveitchik says that the difference between a religious experience and an aesthetic experience is self-transcendence, where one is able to move beyond self.  The feelings one feels during a religious or an aesthetic experience can be very similar.  For example, if you hear beautiful music it can evoke very similar emotions to a religious, spiritual connection with G-d.  But the religious experience by definition must be an experience which is transcendent of self while an aesthetic experience is, essentially, self-centred.
One can transform an aesthetic experience into a religious one and take a religious experience and reduce it to something which is merely aesthetic and not transcendent of self at all.  Our challenge is to take our aesthetic appreciation of music, of nature, of all that we experience, and to transform these experiences into something which inspires us to make a difference, to transcend self, to serve G-d and our fellow human beings.
The daily offering is about asking ourselves why we are here.  What are we meant to accomplish?  What is unity of G-d about?  What is love of fellow man about?  It’s not about service provision for me.  It is really about me serving others and making a difference, about serving G-d as an employee, as a servant and not as an independent contractor.
Parasites come and go; givers remain because they are committed
This links with our discussion of consistency and commitment; if we relate to our religion as just a service provider, then it will come and go.  If religion’s sole purpose is to serve me and my “spiritual needs,” then when it no longer serves my needs I will abandon it.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the nature of our service of G-d with an analogy to two kinds of people: the nomad and the settler.  The nomad goes from place to place; when the grazing is good he remains and when the grazing runs out he moves on.  Rav Soloveitchik says that the nomad is fundamentally a parasite.  He cannot form any emotional bond with the place he is at because he is not connected to the place, only to himself.  He remains there only as long as it is good for him.  A giver, however, settles down and remains in that place no matter what happens because he is connected to others, and an emotional bond is formed.
Rav Soloveitchik explains further that this is why one of G-d’s Names is HaMakom, “The Place,” because we have to be rooted in it, rooted in G-d.  G-d is called “The Place” because everything happens in G-d, so to speak, and that means we are committed and don’t just walk away.  This is where we are, this is our place.  The Talmud says that G-d is called “The Place” because “the world is not the place of G-d but rather G-d is the place of the world.”
We can apply this principle to many different areas in life.  For example, the concept of marriage.  Does a person function as a nomad in a marriage?   I.e., as long as the grazing is good he will remain, but if not he moves on?  In the modern way of thinking, living together has replaced marriage because while it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s not good move on.  Therefore, says the modern view, there is no point in being too connected.  The problem with this mentality is that it is fundamentally self-centred.  Its rationale is that I stay here as long as it’s good for me.  But the whole idea of marriage is that I stay forever, that I am committed to this relationship and to building this family, to making it work and making a difference, and even when it is not so convenient I will work through the issues.  (Of course, the Torah makes provision for divorce in extreme circumstances, but fundamentally the mindset should be that we are committed).
This is what the continual offering represents: the commitment and consistency of every-day life.  But in a broader sense,  it represents what we must ask ourselves – am I here for myself, or am I here to do something to serve G-d, my fellow man, and make a difference in the world?
The importance of every-day experiences
One of the most important lessons of Judaism emerges from this, and that is the importance of the every-day spiritual experiences.  There is a Talmudic principle which states Tadir v’she’eino tadir, tadir kodem, that which occurs more frequently is greater in holiness and takes precedence.  Thus, if you have the opportunity of doing two commandments, the commandment that occurs more frequently is done first because it has greater holiness.
We see a practical application of this principle every day when we pray.  For the morning prayers we don the tallit, the prayer shawl, as well as the tefillin, the phylacteries.  Which do we put on first, the tallit or the tefillin?  The rule is that the tallit goes on first because that is worn every single day, even on Shabbat, whereas tefillin are not worn on Shabbat.  Because the tallit occurs more frequently, it takes priority and is put on first.
This is in direct opposition to conventional wisdom which maintains that the more frequently something occurs the less important it is and the more rarely something occurs the more important it is.  Judaism maintains that the more frequent something is, the more special it becomes, because it is in the daily actions, the every-day, ordinary activities, that the greatest holiness is found .
This philosophy maintains that every single moment of life is precious, not just the “grand occasions.”  The value of life is so important that if one’s life is ever in danger, all commandments in the Torah (except the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery, and idolatry) are set aside in order to save the person.  For example, if a person became ill on Shabbat, and there is a reasonable possibility that his or her life is in danger, one has to break Shabbat (to take the person to hospital, to telephone emergency services, etc.) to do whatever is necessary to save the person.  It is not a transgression because one is commanded to preserve life.
Even if breaking Shabbat won’t save the person’s life but will prolong it for a little bit –  for example, if the person is about to die and by breaking Shabbat to perform whatever necessary procedure he will now live six hours instead of five – we do whatever is necessary, even to add just another hour to his life, or even just a few minutes, because every single moment is precious.  Every single day, minute, even a second, is precious. There is holiness in every single moment and that is what the daily offering represents
The value of today
There is a halachic case, a real case that was brought before the Radvaz, one of our great Talmudic scholars who lived a few hundred years ago, which illustrates this point.  A man who was imprisoned was given a free pass to get out of jail for one day.  His question was, which day should he choose?  The question was presented to the great scholars of that time.  Some maintained that he should take Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur being one of the most important days of the year.  Others said he should take Purim which was coming up soon, because of the great mitzvah of hearing the reading of the megillah.  The Radvaz, however, ruled that he must take the first day he can.  If he can take today, he goes today, because you don’t postpone a mitzvah.  Every single moment is holy, and therefore he must grasp the opportunity today.
This ruling of the Radvaz ties in with everything we have been talking about.  The daily offering represents the fact that it is the every-day things, the kind of things that we would normally consider to be mundane and unimportant, that in fact have the greatest potential for sanctity, for kedusha, in serving G-d and making a difference in the world.
This is why the Sages chose the Korban Tamid, the daily offering, as the most important verse in the Torah.  It encompasses so much which is fundamental to Judaism, including the concept of gratitude as we discussed according to the Abarbanel; the wholehearted service and commitment to transcend self as we discussed according to the Maharal; and the idea that it is in the every-day things which we often consider to be the most mundane that the potential for holiness can be found.
We see this concept in the various laws of blessings.  We have special blessings recited for special occasions or unusual events – the blessings recited at a wedding, or the blessing recited on thunder, or upon seeing the ocean – but we have many blessings which we recite daily, upon anything that we enjoy from this world, even eating a fruit or drinking a glass of water.   A blessing is said on everything, because there is nothing which is ordinary.  All of the seemingly minor events which we just take for granted have special blessings.  Through these blessings we show appreciation for every moment and every experience that we go through.
This consciousness of each moment’s preciousness relates to all aspects of our lives.  For example, how do we relate to our loved ones?  Do we wait only for birthdays and anniversaries to show them care and concern or do we try to use every single day to show our care and concern, our love and appreciation?
Life is made up not so much of the big occasions because they are few and far between, but of the preciousness of every-day moments.  If we are able to infuse those every-day moments with holiness and significance then we are truly able to live life to its full potential.
Judaism is holistic
This idea also explains why the commandments in Judaism cover so many different aspects of life.  We have 613 commandments that relate to every possible situation of life: laws of Shabbat, daily prayer, as well as laws governing how we do business and how we treat our fellow human beings.  No part of our existence goes untouched because  Judaism is not just a “religion” but a way of life that embraces every aspect of our existence.   It is not just about particular moments or special occasions.  It’s not a religion that is there solely for the big events – births, bar mitzvahs, marriage and death – of life.  Those are part of it, of course, but really life is about what goes on every day, between those events.
Everything is important because everything has potential for holiness.  This is why the verse referring to the daily offering is so fundamental to the philosophy of Judaism because it is saying everything, every aspect of life, even the ordinary, is what comprises life.  All those opportunities become an arena for doing good and making a difference, in our service of G-d and our fellow human beings.