This week's portion is filled with important verses, but the one that sages considered most important may surprise you.
What is the most important verse in the Torah? Is this a trick question, or taken from a children’s game or a qualifying exam?
The ancient rabbis were fond of asking questions that seemed to be simple, yet would elicit a range of sophisticated and interesting answers. According to Shimon ben Pazzai, a talmudic sage, Parshat Pinchas contains the response to this query.
We might think that the verse is found in the first part of this portion, which begins with God’s response to Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, who assumes responsibility for defending the honor of the Israelite community. However, the sages are deeply troubled both by Pinchas’ zealotry and by what seems to be the Holy One’s support of Pinchas’ murderous behavior.
Rabbi Lisa Edwards points out the visual Midrash embedded in verse 25:12 of the Torah text. She writes that the only exception to the rule followed by Torah scribes that no letter may be broken comes with the letter vav in the word “shalom” when God grants Pinchas, “‘My pact of friendship/b’riti shalom.” No one knows for sure the reason but many believe, Edwards writes, “that the letter vav, with its slight curve at the top, and straight up and down line, resembles a spear, perhaps the spear of Pinchas. The broken, spear-shaped vav here in the word “shalom” invites us to see the imperfection/corruption of peace brought by the sword.” But this is not ben Pazzai’s choice.
So we continue to read this portion and discover a unique and powerful narrative of the five extraordinary sisters who challenge the Israelite community’s rules of inheritance. They come before Moses and ask why their father’s name, and his inheritance, should disappear with his death simply because he has daughters instead of sons. Moses sets a precedent in the ancient Near East by granting the daughters’ request, allowing the inheritance to pass to a daughter if there are no sons. But this is not seen as the Torah’s most important verse either.
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the 16th-century mystic known as the Maharal of Prague, cites a Midrash (pointed out by Rabbi Bill Kuhn of Congregation Rodeph Shalom) that answers our question. One sage, Ben Zoma, posits that the Shema is the most important verse. Another sage, Ben Nannas, offers “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” But neither are accepted. Then Shimon Ben Pazzai offers this verse from Parshat Pinchas: “One lamb shall you offer in the morning, and the other lamb shall you offer at evening” (28:4).
The Maharal explains this surprising choice: The most important verse in the Torah points us to intentional, daily, consistent behavior — in this case, offering a sacrifice both morning and evening. Using the example of the ancient sacrificial offering, which demanded careful attention to every detail of the process, the Torah directs us to set a course of action and to follow it, renewing our commitment day after day.
Each of us can be observant Jews: seeing the world, every day, through Jewish eyes, claiming the power and the liberation, of daily commitment. When we choose to make each day count by serving others, and by serving God through deliberate acts of justice and compassion, we fulfill this essential message of Torah.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the editor of The Open Door Haggadah, serves as a spiritual director in Philadelphia.