If you were asked to pick one verse from the Torah that captures the essence of Judaism, what would that verse be?
Three rabbinic sages in the Talmud took a shot at it. The most famous is a verse from Parashat Kedoshim, one of the two Torah portions we read this week.
In the midst of a series of commandments that reflect the Torah’s desire to create ethical relationships amongst people, the Torah commands:
“You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
From this verse came the oft-quoted teaching of the rabbinic sage Rabbi Akiva, who said: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself – This is the greatest principle of the Torah.”
Rabbi Akiva drew inspiration from Hillel, a brilliant rabbinic sage and teacher from an earlier generation. The Talmud records the famous story about Hillel and Shammai’s encounter with a potential convert to Judaism:
A certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai shunned him away with the stick in his hand. He then went before Hillel with the same request, and Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; now go and learn it.
(Talmud Shabbat 31a)
Rabbi Akiva’s “greatest principle of Torah” is rooted in Hillel’s teaching. Together, these two teachings form the greatest “one-two punch” of great Jewish slogans that make us proud to be Jewish. After all, these “Golden Rules” of ethics can apply to all of life, and they present such a great face for Judaism. Can there be anything greater in the Torah than Hillel and Akiba’s “Golden Rules”? Who would dare to challenge such ethical greatness?
In the face of this moral grandeur comes the rabbinic sage Ben-Azzai, who, in response to Rabbi Akiva’s “You shall love your neighbor as yourself – this is the greatest principle of the Torah,” boldly – yet peculiarly – said: “This is the Book of the Story of Adam (Genesis 5:1) – this is even a greater principle.”
What can Ben-Azzai possibly mean by this? How strange! Can you imagine? Juxtapose the “two greatest verses” in the Torah:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”
“This is the Book of the Story of Adam”
This does not seem to match up evenly. Looks like no contest! What lies behind Ben-Azzai’s choice of an obscure, non descript, mechanical verse from the Book of Genesis as his choice for being an “even greater principle” than loving your neighbor?
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (known as “The Netziv”) offers a deep and wise insight on Ben-Azzai’s teaching.
He says that the verse “This is the Book of the Story of Adam” is not to be understood as a mechanical or descriptive verse, but as a metaphor for the human condition. “The Book of the Story of Adam” is the story of Adam’s first day on earth, which according to rabbinic tradition, started out by Adam being created in the morning, and – twelve hours later, on the very same day – Adam had already sinned and found himself expelled from Eden.
The Netziv says that “The Book” being referred to here is a story that took place in one day, a day that started out on a positive and creative note, and ended up in negativity and downfall.
“This comes to teach us life’s wisdom,” says the Netziv, “that man has the potential to destroy his lot in life in one short day.” This wisdom, according to the Netziv, is applicable to everyday life, and serves as a powerful reminder to each of us how to approach each day of our lives. Conventional wisdom often teaches, “Each day of life is a page in a book.” Ben-Azzai’s teaching, as seen by the Netziv, argues something even greater: that each day of life is a book unto its own, and man is the author of that book on a day-to-day basis. This deep self-reflective wisdom may, indeed, outshine Rabbi Akiva’s “Golden Rule.”
So what is the greatest principle of the Torah? Loving one’s neighbor? Treating each day like a complete book?
You make the decision...
You make the decision...