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?
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.
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.
The importance of every-day experiences
Another important lesson 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.