In Jacob ibn Habib’s introduction to his anthology of Talmudic midrashim, Ein Ya’akov, he records an early rabbinic disagreement about what verse in the Torah is the greatest. Three rabbis disagreed (although possibly not all of them were formally ordained). The first one, Ben Zoma, said the greatest verse was the Sh’ma, “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal One alone (Deuteronomy 6:4). The second one, Ben Nannas, said it was “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The third one, however, Shimon ben Pazi, chose a more obscure verse from Parashat T’tzaveh, “You shall offer one lamb in the morning, and you shall offer another lamb at twilight” (Exodus 29:39). And then, surprisingly, an anonymous rabbi ends the disagreement by proclaiming, “The law is according to Shimon ben Pazi!”(1)
The reader can only wonder why two great, fundamental teachings of the Torah could not outweigh a third teaching about the regularity of offering sacrifices. Something else must be going on. The first two verses stand as pillars of Judaism, but the third one points out the importance of constancy, of commitment, and even covenant. For example, I know of a woman in Jerusalem who never thought her actions would bring on the Messiah, but she goes every Friday afternoon to Hadassah Hospital to help female patients light Shabbat candles (in a safe way). I know of a young woman who periodically cuts her long, beautiful hair and donates it to a charity that makes wigs for women undergoing chemotherapy treatments. I know of a group of men and women who sign up month after month and transport a patient to doctor’s appointments and physical therapy appointments.
The rules for offering sacrifices require ongoing steadfastness, or, to use the Biblical word, “hesed”, which means “loving loyalty”(1). It describes the covenant of marriage and the covenant between God and the Jewish people. When we look for signs of growing maturity in our children, we look for (and try to nurture!) that kind of steadfast reliability and sincere commitment.
- See Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Vol. 1, (The University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln) p. 201.
- Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, Hebrew Union College Press (Cincinnati, 1967) p. 102.
By Donald M. Splansky, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Am, Framingham