What Is the Mission Statement of Judaism?

"One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon" by: Rabbi YY Jacobson

Originally posted on

Bill Gates and GM

Bill Gates is spending the day with the chairman of General Motors.

"If automotive technology had kept pace with computer technology over the past few decades," boasts Gates, "you would now be driving a V32 instead of a V8, and it would have a top speed of 10,000 miles per hour. Or, you could have an economy car that weighs 30 pounds and gets a thousand miles to a gallon of gas. In either case, the sticker price of a new car would be less than $50."

"Sure," says the GM chairman. "But would you really want to drive a car that crashes four times a day?"

The Verse that Says It All

A fascinating Midrash credits an isolated verse in this week's Torah portion, Pinchas, with encapsulating the quintessence of Judaism (1).

The Midrash quotes four opinions as to which biblical verse best sums up the ultimate message of Torah.

One sage, by the name of Ben Azzai, believed it was the verse in Genesis (2): "This is the book of the chronicles of man; on the day that G-d created man He created him in the image of G-d."

Another sage, by the name of Ben Zoma, holds a different verse to be more central to Jewish thought: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One (3)."

A third Talmudist, Ben Nanas, chooses this verse: "You shall love your fellow man like yourself (4)."

Finally, the fourth sage, Shimon, the son of Pazi, casts his pitch for the epic verse of the Bible. It is culled from the section in this week's portion that deals with the obligation during the time of the Temple to bring each day two lambs as an offering to G-d. "One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon (5)." This verse, according to Shimon, the son of Pazi, is the defining verse of Judaism.

The Midrash concludes: "One of the rabbis stood on his feet and declared, 'The verdict follows the opinion of Shimon the son of Pazi!'"

The Big Question

Now, there is something in this Midrash that seems really amiss.

The first three opinions are logical. The notion that all of Judaism can be traced back to the idea that a human being reflects G-d, makes perfect sense. The same can be said about the concept of a single and universal G-d, or the injunction to love our fellow man like ourselves—these ideas, introduced 3300 years ago by the Hebrew Bible, vividly embody the essential weltanschauung of Judaism and its contribution to human civilization.

But how does the verse "One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon" represent the core essence of Torah? How can one even begin to compare the message about offering two lambs with the global and noble ideas contained in the other three opinions?

What is even more astonishing is that the final verdict in the Midrash selects this verse about the sheep as the "winner." The biblical verses dealing with love, monotheism and human dignity, the foundations of morality and civilization, did not "make it" in the contest; it is precisely this verse enjoining us to offer a lamb in the morning and a lamb in the afternoon -- that was chosen as the "representative" of the Jewish paradigm!

The Depth of Perseverance

One of the most seminal Jewish thinkers in the post-medieval period was Rabbi Judah Loew (1525-1609), who was known as the Maharal of Prague and served as the Chief Rabbi of Prague. In one of his works (6) he offers a rather moving answer to the above query.

What the fourth and last sage, Shimon, the son of Pazi, was suggesting is that the verse that ultimately defines what it means to be a Jew, is the one that speaks of unwavering consistency, "One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon." Every single morning and every single afternoon you shall make a sacrifice for your Creator.

Of course, the biblical declarations that reveal the philosophical depth of Torah and its grand vision for humanity—monotheism, love, human dignity—are powerful, splendid and revolutionary. But what makes living a Jewish life unique is the unswerving commitment to live and breathe these truths day in, day out, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

One can be moved to tears by the notion of tikkun olam, of healing the world; one can become aflame with a burning passion toward the ideals of human dignity, love and peace. One can be inspired to make a donation, to give a speech, to shed a tear, to attend a rally or to write an article.

But the real and ultimate power of Judaism is that it always inspired its people to cultivate their relationship with G-d on a continuous basis, every day of their lives. Judaism asks the human being to make daily sacrifices for truth, for love, for peace, for G-d. "One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon."

During exciting days as well as monotonous days, on bright days and bleak days—“One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon." In the morning, when you awake, you are called to make a sacrifice to G-d. In the afternoon, when your day is winding down, you are called, once again, to sacrifice something of yourself for G-d.

Judaism is not only about a moving Yom Kippur experience or an emotional memorial ceremony; it is something the Jew lives every moment of his life. It is the dedication of ordinary people to construct, through daily ordinary acts, a fragment of heaven on planet earth.

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1) The Midrash is quoted in the introduction to Ein Yakov, compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Ben Chaviv. He writes there that he found this information recorded in the name of the Midrash, but could not discover the original source. He proceeds to present his own explanation to the Midrash.

2) Genesis 5:1.

3) Deuteronomy 6:4.

4) Leviticus 19:18.

5) Numbers 28:4.

6) Nesivos Olam vol. 2 Nesiv Ahavas Ria chapter one.

My gratitude to Rabbi Nir Gurevitch, spiritual leader of the Australian Gold Coast community. I first heard this Midrash and Maharal from Rabbi Gurevitch, when I visited his community several years ago.