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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tetzaveh - The Search for the Torah's Most Important Pasuk

In my time in yeshiva, the coming of Parshat Tetzaveh meant the re-use of a fascinating, troubling, and somewhat mysterious Midrash. The piece is referenced by the Maharal (d. 1609), who found it in the introduction to the Ein Yaakov (R. Yaakov ibn Habib d. 1516), who states that he "saw it written in the name of the Midrash, yet sought it and failed to find it anywhere."

Ben Zoma said: We found a pasuk which is all inclusive, "Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ekhad." (Devarim 6:4)
Ben Nannas said: We found a pasuk which is all inclusive, "v'Ahavta l'Reakha k'Mokha." (Vayikra 19:18)
Ben Pazai said: We found a pasuk which is all inclusive: "And the first sheep you shall offer in the morning . . . " (Shemot 29:32?, Parshat Tetzaveh*)

The Midrash presents verses which, to some extent, aptly summarize the total content of the Torah. The first suggestion is fairly reasonable. "Shema Yisrael" places at the center of Judaism recognition of God, obedience towards Him, and understanding of His relationship with Bnei Yisrael; it is no coincidence that the verse appears so prominently in Tefilla. Ben Zoma sees all mitzvot as signs of and steps toward that recognition. He thus represents the "Avodat Hashem" (service of God) approach to Judaism: the commanded striving to understand the Commander and perform His commands.

In contrast, Ben Nannas puts forward the "Moral Code" interpretation of Judaism. Mirroring Rabbi Akiva's opinion that "love your neighbor as yourself" is the foundational principle of the Torah (Yerushalmi Nedarim 41), he reiterates the claim that the Mizvot are signs of and steps towards a more refined ethical personality.

But Ben Pazai? He quotes a positively nondescript portion of the Korban Tamid service. It is a minor verse, selected almost at random from hundreds of pasukim which recount Korbanot. So what's the deal: why this pasuk?

The classic source of the Midrash, the Maharal of Prague, offers what has become the standard interpretation:

And according to Shimon Ben Pazai, permanent consistency in Avodat Hashem, represented by the Korban brought every day in the morning and afternoon, this is the foundational principle. (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Ha'Reia 1)

This Maharal, oft-quoted in Mussar schmoozes, explains that day-in-day-out consistency is the foundational aspect of the Torah. Yet, on a personal level, I find this interpretation almost troubling. If the Tannaitic purpose is to spell out the Grand Plan of Yiddishkeit, I would expect something lofty- something like knowledge of God, attainment of the ethical ideal, etc. Choosing consistency is tantamount to not taking the Tannaim's statement seriously. For granted, consistency is an important aspect of effective Jewish living, but its almost belittling to the entire Jewish enterprise to claim that it as the all-encompassing meta-value. (As an aside, the Maharal glosses over this opinion, spending one sentence on it before continuing a length discussion of "love your neighbor as your self.")

R. Ibn Habib takes a different approach. He interprets "Shema Yisrael" as representing knowledge in matters of faith, God, and Torah. In contrast to the realm of thought, "love your neighbor" stands as symbol for good deeds, for physical actions. Bridging the conflict between intangible thought and corporeal action, Ben Pazai points to Korbanot, which are spiritual deeds leading to interaction and knowledge of the Divine, yet occur only through physical acts. The question then stands as whether the Torah was ultimately given to improve man's intellect, his actions, or some combination thereof.

Employing my reaction to the Maharal, I'd like to suggest a third interpretation. Perhaps Ben Zoma and Ben Nannas take themselves very seriously, debating with absolute sincerity two diametrically opposed views of the Torah and its purpose. Imagine the scene, with the two Tannaim slinging theological proofs and philosophic rationales back and forth in argument. Suddenly, Ben Pazai rises from his bench and silences the two Rabbis: "No, this is the most important pasuk: 'And the first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second in the afternoon.' Now we can get on with life." Ben Pazai takes contest with the entire endeavor, with the notion of solving the unanswerable question of the Torah's all-encompassing purpose. (Or at least, the notion of boxing it into one conscise pasuk.)

Which provides a new context for the Maharal's reading. Taking Ben Pazai with a grain of ironic salt, we understand his emphasis on consistency over, say idyllic visions of a morally perfected world. Ben Pazai's "big questions" are not philosophical, but practical. What do we tell the common man? What do we tell ourselves? Whatever the Grand Vision, how do we make it a Grant Reality? Through consistent dedication to the commands of the Torah.

Which fits the Midrash's denouement:

Rabbi Ploni ("R. John Doe") stood up and said, "The Halakha is like Ben Pazai."

The very notion of "paskening" a philosophical question is rather controversial, but this anonymous rabbi's pronouncement is wonderfully well-timed. While the theological debate may rage on forever, in daily practical life, we are obligated to follow Ben Pazai.


QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table

--A mysterious Midrash presents three opinions for the Torah's all-encompassing pasuk: Shema, v'Ahavta, and . . . a pasuk about the the Korban Tamid!
--The Maharal explains that the third opinion views consistent, day-in-and-day-out service of Hashem as the fundamental aspect of Torah Judaism.
--R. Yaakov Ibn Habib, the author of the Ein Yaakov, interprets the Korban reference as compromising between a purely intellectual and purely action-based Torah.
--Perhaps the third opinion should be read with some irony. He argues against the very notion of finding an all-encompassing pasuk.
--While it is likely not the Maharal's intent, it nonetheless compliments his interpretation. The third opinion decries the theological discussion and offers purely practical advice.


*The Midrash is largely quoted in the context of Parshat Tetzaveh, since the third opinion pasuk appears to be found in that parsha. However, every edition of the Ein Yaakov that I have seen contains the words את הכבש אחד תעשה בבקר, from Bamidbar 28:4. The pasuk that occurs in Tetzaveh is almost identical, but has האחד with an extra ה. I am still on the lookout for an Ein Yaakov with the extra ה.


1 comment:

Sam said...

This is an interesting read of the midrash, but I think you don't give Maharal a fully fair read. He writes more than just that it's all about consistency. The idea of consistency is supposed to engender a sense of total servitude to God and all that such servitude encompasses, just as a servant is continually in a state of servitude to his master. And, I thought Maharal gives it as fair a treatment as any of the other opinions.

But, I think you have a great point that this opinion may suggest that ultimately, it's day-to-day life that trumps in Judaism.