Pinchas: The Most Important Verse in Torah

Given on the occasion of the Inaugural Weekday Morning Minyan Service at:

Temple Beth Tikvah, Fullerton, CA
July 7, 2014; 9 Tammuz 5774

Which is the most important verse in Torah?  You might choose “Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our G-d, the Lord is One!” or “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” or “I am the Lord Your G-d; You shall have no other gods before Me,” or “You Shall Be Holy, Because I Am Holy,” or “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,” or one of the other lofty and familiar verses.    

But I’m going to bet that none of you would cite Numbers 28:3 from this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas.  In it G-d says:  “And you shall say to them: This is the fire offering which you shall offer to the Lord: two unblemished lambs in their first year each day as a continual burnt offering.” 

How could anyone possibly choose that as the most important verse in Torah?  Yet, according to a midrash discussed by the famous 17th century sage, the Maharal of Prague, when our sages debated which Torah verse is most important, one of them, Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazai, chose this seemingly obscure verse.  Even more startlingly, the midrash concludes that after hearing all the leading sages explain their choices, “Rabbi Ploni” (Rabbi “John Doe”) stood up and said: “The law is per Ben Pazai.”

Why would the “rank and file” sages conclude that bringing regular sacrifices is the Torah’s most important verse?  And why, especially, would they do so during a debate that occurred centuries after the destruction of the Temple, and thus long after literal compliance had become impossible?  Moreover, it couldn’t have been the sacrifice requirement itself (even conceptually) that made this verse stand out, since many other Torah verses also deal with this subject.  

Rather, the crucial point was the regularity of the obligation.  Bring a sacrifice twice every day. Every day.  Every day. 

Our tradition realizes both that we are creatures of habit and that we often procrastinate or avoid doing what we know we should do.  This is so even though we also know that the most important things in life can only be accomplished through consistent dedication over the long-haul.  

Moreover, perhaps the “rank and file” rabbis knew even better than the leadership that the essence of Judaism is not “religious” doctrine or belief but rather making the routine holy. This requires proper behavior every day, under mundane circumstances….it’s how we bring meaning to the way we live.   

We can say that something is most important to us, and we can think that something is most important to us, and we can even want something to be most important to us.  But it’s what we actually do day by day by day by day that proves what truly is most important to us.  

Today, we begin the effort to establish a morning minyan at Temple Beth Tikvah.  We say we want to build community.  We think that we want greater spirituality in our lives.  We know that we want to learn more about Judaism and to connect with its great values, ethics, history, and traditions.  But are we going to actually act as if those are our priorities?  

G-d willing, this minyan will take root and flourish because it will be an opportunity to show to ourselves and to each other that what we say is important really is important.  We will gather briefly two mornings a week, G-d willing perhaps it will become every morning, for prayer, learning, and community. If we do so, it will be a precious gift to ourselves, our community, and to future generations.   

This week’s Torah portion begins with G-d rewarding Phineas for stepping forward and acting to preserve Israelite tradition.  May G-d likewise look favorably upon the minyan that we begin today, and bless us and this holy congregation. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb