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The Most Important Verse In Torah

Photo by Tanner Yould on Unsplash

There is a fascinating conversation amongst the sages regarding which verse in the Torah is the most important. The sage Ben Zoma opines that it is the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord or God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The sage Ben Nanas suggests the verse “love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The sage Ben Azai proposes the verse “on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him” (Genesis 5:1).

Each of these verses seems to be a worthy candidate for the Torah’s most important verse. The Shema is the basic declaration of Jewish faith, asserting not only that there is only one God, but furthermore that God is One and unified throughout His creation. V’ahavta is the fundamental statement of Jewish ethics, and indeed Rabbi Akiva asserted that the directive to love one’s fellow is the general principle of the entire Torah. The notion that humankind is created in God’s likeness is the foundation of human dignity and spiritual growth; because we are in God’s image, therefore we can transcend our base and egoistic inclinations.

The verse that was chosen and agreed upon was none of these verses however. Instead the sages determined that the most important verse in Torah is one that is found in this week’s Torah portion (in chutz la’aretz), Parshas Pinchas. This verse, which was put forth by Shimon ben Pazi, legislates the daily sacrifices: “One lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon”(Numbers 28:4). What is so significant about this seemingly mundane and procedural verse about the daily offerings?

Various answers have been offered to justify the sages’ conclusion. Some have suggested that the verse’s focus on daily service stresses the value of consistency and selfless devotion, both of which are crucial for the fulfillment of our mission. Others submit that the verse reveals how precious our small mortal service is to the infinite God. While these explanations have tremendous merit, we can also understand the sages’ selection as an indication of something even deeper. That is the extraordinary significance of “karbonos/sacrifices” in the very meaning and purpose of our creation.

This will come as a surprise to many who consider the sacrificial service to be a primitive and barbarous rite which has no place in our modern spiritual consciousness. But when we grasp the profound inner dynamics that the sacrifices represent, then we can appreciate the sages’ choice, and we will see that “karbonos/sacrifices” are the crux of what we have been created to do.

The Chassidic masters teach that the world was created “yesh me’ayin/something from nothing,” and our task is reverse the process and create “ayin/nothingness” out of “yesh/somethingness.” That is to say that though we consider ourselves to be individual and significant beings, we are, through our spiritual service, to come the realization that we are nothing other than expressions of Godliness in this realm of concealment. This is the deeper intention of the Shema, when we declare that God is one, and there is nothing other. The implication here is that we ourselves are not independent or distinct beings. We are simply aspects of God’s infinite unity which have been encased in physical vessels in order to reveal that unity in a world that is not cognizant of it.

This transcendent epiphany of the Shema is the culmination of the morning prayer service. But in order to reach this revelation, we must begin with Korbanos, the sacrificial service, which is recited at the very beginning of the prayers in both the morning and afternoon service. While many either skim or even skip this segment of the service completely, the daily “reenactment” of the sacrifices with genuine “kavana/intention” creates immense impact within us and within the world around us.

As we read of the animals being consumed in the fire of the altar, we are to imagine placing our own animal – our very body and material self – on the fire and burning away the crust that covers and eclipses our Godly core. We allow the flames to burn off the outer husk, the fleshy garments that have become sullied through our engagement in the dirt and grime of our physical engagements. We allow our cloak to smolder on the fire of the altar, and we become unshackled and unburdened from the heavy carapace that obscures our inner essence. The fire consumes our “עוֹר/ohr/skin” (ohr spelled with an “ע/ayin”), and reveals the Godly “אוׂר/ohr/light” (ohr spelled with an “א/aleph”) which is hidden beneath it.

It is important to understand that the goal is not to destroy the body in the fire, but to refine and elevate it. Throughout this process of “performing” the “karbonos/sacrifices,” we have decided that in the coming day we will harness and utilize our animal rather than allowing it to control us. We have taken our animal to the altar, and claimed its vitality rather than subjecting ourself to its strength. We allow the flames to burn away the crust, but our body does not expire or dissolve. Rather, cleansed of its filth, it reveals itself as incandescent. It is not simply transparent, allowing that which is beneath it to be revealed, but it is radiant and resplendent. It is ‘magnificent’ in the sense that it ‘magnifies’ the gleam of the light that glows within it.

This is the power of “karbonos/sacrifices.” And this is the meditation that accompanies the recitation of the sacrificial service each morning and afternoon. We begin the day by extracting ourselves from the bounds imposed by our gross materialism and the self-centrism that it engenders. We resolve that in the day ahead we will allow our “pnimyus/inner core” to be manifest and to irradiate our surroundings. By afternoon, we must recite “karbonos” again. Our dealings with the world throughout the day have already encumbered and encrusted us anew. There is yet another animal for us to offer up on the altar.

And so it goes daily. We constantly work to burn away the shell that delimits us, and to refine the body that conveys and communicates us. In so doing, we are ever moving closer to God by removing the aspect of ourselves and of the universe that keeps us distant from Him. This explains why sacrifices are called “karbonos” from the root “karov” meaning “close.” And yet as close as we come, our job is never complete. As long as we exist in a physical body (at least until the messianic age), there will always be a barrier that interposes between us and our source, and we will always be required to offer ourselves daily and to thereby draw ever closer and thus allow the face of God to beam through us. We thus understand why the sages have determined that the verse “one lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon” is the most important verse in Torah. The daily removal of our animal crust – and by extension the physical covering that conceals God throughout the creation – is precisely what the Torah was given us in order to do.

– Excerpted from Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.  www.pneihashem.com

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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