If somebody asked you to name the most important verse in the Torah, what would you say? The Jerusalem Talmud actually discusses this question. In this talmudic passage, Rabbi Akiba proposes the verse: “Love your fellow person as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
No doubt, Rabbi Akiba’s choice is a worthy one. Loving your fellow person as yourself is about putting yourself in another person’s shoes. It is about the foundational ethical and emotional imperative of empathy, of being attuned and sensitized to the feelings and sentiments of another person.
This perspective also is endorsed by Rabbi Hillel the Elder in the Babylonian Talmud. When asked by a prospective convert to recite the entirety of the Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel famously stated: “Don’t do unto another that which is hateful to you. The rest is commentary, now go and learn.”
But not everybody concurs with this answer that loving another person as you love yourself is the “klal gadol baTorah (fundamental Torah principle). According to Ben Azzai, a second-century contemporary of Rabbi Akiba, the overarching metaprinciple of the Torah is to be found in Genesis 5:1, a verse which includes the statement that man is created “in the likeness of God.”
If Rabbi Akiba’s choice was to opt for a verse that is a cornerstone of human psychology, then Rabbi Ben Azzai opted for a verse with far-reaching consequences for political thought. According to Rashi, Ben Azzai argues that because we all are fashioned in the Divine image, we all possess innate, intrinsic and nonnegotiable human dignity and worth, and thus must not be dehumanized, discriminated against or murdered.
Indeed, the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible are quoted hundreds of times in the works of political theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant and John Locke, who envisaged modern-day representative democracy. There is a clear and pervasive linkage between the Torah’s revolutionary notion that we all are in God’s image and the modern application of this sacred ideal in the American Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, endorsed by the French National Assembly after the French Revolution.
The prayer “Shema Yisrael, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), also can be regarded as the central verse of the Torah. Spiritually and theologically, the Shema may indeed be the prime verse of the Torah, as it captures the monistic unity of God, and also the kabbalistic-panentheistic insight that everything which exists is contained within the infinity and eternity of the oneness of God.
In addition to the three cardinal verses discussed so far, there is a fourth contender for the most central verse in the Torah.
In the midrashic anthology “Ein Yaakov,” compiled by the 15th-century Sephardic sage Rabbi Yaakov ben Habib, we find this verse, which is brought forth in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi. According to ben Pazi, the chief verse of the Torah appears in this week’s parsha, and it reads: “You shall offer the first lamb in the morning, and the second lamb during twilight” (Numbers 28:4).
This is most perplexing. After all, this verse seems to be discussing a mere administrative technicality, namely, what is the prompt and opportune time at which to bring forth the Temple offerings. A contemporary reader might easily glance over this verse and dismiss it as mere ancient esotericism.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason ben Pazi crowns this precious verse as the most cardinal one in the Torah is because he has the genius to understand that there is only one thing that truly attests to a person’s character — his deeds.
The key to success and growth in any field of human endeavor, this verse implies, is daily regularity. For example, if I want to be a spiritual person, then I should pray every day, thrice daily, and not just “when the spirit moves me.”
All too often, people seek a breakthrough in their lives and strive to attain growth in one large stride. That’s not the most effective way, implies our verse. The best way to become your highest self — to “awaken the giant within,” in the words of Tony Robbins — is simply to put in the work, day in and day out.
Or as the late Stephen Covey explained in his masterful work “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” it is precisely our habits, the things we regularly do, that define us, who we are and what we stand for.
No non-Jewish sage appreciated and internalized the veracity of this universal truth better than Aristotle, who already observed 2 1/2 millennia ago that “excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Rabbi Tal Sessler is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books dealing with philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.