What is the essence of Jewish service? A famous midrash (found in the introduction to the aggadic compilation Ein Yaakov) asks: “What is the most important verse in all of the Torah?” Ben Zoma said, “We found a verse which is all inclusive: ‘Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ekhad.’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:4) This seems like an obvious choice since at our core, Jews are monotheists. Then Ben Nannas said: “We found a verse which is all inclusive: ‘V’Ahavta l’Reakha k’Mokha.’ ” (Leviticus 19:18) This may seem most correct since at the center of Judaism is ethics.
Another approach says, tzelem elokim, that we are created in the image of God. This wisely seems to combine the first two approaches affirming Divinity and extending our ethical commitments from that theology. But, then finally, Ben Pazai said: “We found a verse which is all inclusive: ‘This is what you shall offer upon the Altar: Two sheep within their first year every day continually.’ ” (Exodus 29:38) What on earth does this mean? How is this the central message of Judaism?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas, we learn about the korban tamid, the daily offering. One of the foremost lessons throughout the Torah and Jewish tradition generally is the responsibility for us to sacrifice something for the greater well-being of society. From a modern perspective, we often think of sacrifices as minor inconveniences to be overcome through sheer will or circumstance. As a society, we have become partially inoculated against acknowledging the sacrifices of others in our daily routines. How often do we walk by workers struggling through two jobs to support their families? How often do we acknowledge the plights of the vulnerable around us, if we see them at all? How many children (even as adults) fail to see how much their parents sacrificed for them?
As we can discern from the text, we are to bring forth our daily sacrifice. On the surface, this material seems extremely dry and overly didactic. But in between the lines is a remarkable observation about human nature, namely the need to go beyond the mundanity of everyday experiences to imbue holiness into every activity we do. Each day we must ask: How will I serve my fellow person? With all of my own needs, my workplace needs, my family needs, my friends’ needs, my community’s needs, my society’s needs, what will I do to give myself over to being a force for righteousness and goodness? That is the essence of Judaism: to live a life of service toward others and toward the ultimate Other.
The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle said that, “Our grand business is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” With this maxim, Carlyle indeed may have (unwittingly) encapsulated a core message of Judaism: that theological beliefs and ethical principles are worthless if we don’t live them each day. Each day, we must put our beliefs and principles into practice and live a life of service. Every day, we are given the opportunity to sacrifice something that we hold dear so that, perhaps, someone will be given the chance to thrive. This is not to be a sorrow-filled sacrifice, but joy-filled service.
This isn’t a call to judgment, but a clarion call to consistent action! When we take the time to give back, to bring forth good deeds that bring joy to others who are suffering, we gain so much in terms of a spiritual reward; it doesn’t take much. And indeed, through simple reciprocity and giving back, and through the cultivation of inner joy, we recommit ourselves to a never-ending path of love, kindness and justice. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 13 books on Jewish ethics. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.