Parashat Pinchas

Friday, July 2, 2021/22 Tammuz, 5781
Parashat Pinchas Numbers 25:10−30:1

Dear Friends,

What is the most important verse in the Torah? A midrash in Ein Yaakov, a Talmudic compilation by Rabbi Yaakov ibn Habib, offers three different opinions.

Rabbi Zoma says that the most central and inclusive verse is the Shema, “Hear Israel, Adonai is our God. Adonai is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Rabbi Nanas points to a verse that appears at the center of the Torah, “Love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Shimon ben Pazi believes there is an even more inclusive verse in the Torah, which appears in the Torah twice, one of which is in this week’s Torah portion, “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.” (Exodus 29:39, Numbers 28:4)

Rabbi Yehuda says nothing concerning the first two opinions, but he quickly concurs when Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazi speaks.

The first two texts are not surprising. Rabbi Zoma chooses the Shema, which is central to our tradition and our faith. Through it, we affirm our unity as a Jewish community and our belief in the same higher being. We all may experience God differently, but we connect to something bigger than ourselves. For this reason, Jews throughout the world offer this prayer every evening and every morning. It is one of the first things said upon waking up and one of the last things said before going to sleep.

Rabbi Nanus’ chosen text speaks to the important value of seeing the humanity in our fellow and treating them accordingly. This text teaches that we can best respect the Godliness around us by loving others and treating them with dignity. As Rabbi Hillel similarly taught, “Do not do to others that which you don’t want others to do to you. That is the whole Torah. Now go and learn it.”

Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi’s text, however, may leave us scratching our heads. Why would he choose a text about offering lambs, and why would Rabbi Yehuda agree with him over the other two texts?

The answer, explains the Maharal, is one of habit. Whereas the first two texts point to central and all-encompassing Jewish values, Ben Pazi’s text emphasizes the importance of serving God with regularity continually. It is one thing to believe in a value intellectually. It another to act on it with consistency.

In temple times, people acted on their commitment to God and the Jewish people through sacrifice. They gave of themselves willingly and enthusiastically. This text calls on us to do the same. In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis teaches that it is preferable to give 100 $1 gifts to 1 $100 gift. Even though people cannot buy much with a dollar, the consistency acting with generosity changes our very character for the better. “Our heart follows our deeds,” teaches Sefer HaChinuch. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato adds, “External motions stimulate internal ones.” In acting on our traditions continually and reliably, we welcome in a deeper connection to God, the Jewish community, and ourselves.

We, too, can find ways to make Judaism meaningful for us every day. Whether through prayer, meditation, study, social justice work, music, art, or something else, may this verse of Torah inspire us to make Judaism personally relevant and meaningful to our daily lives.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail