Shimon Ben Pazi’s Choice
What constitutes the essence of the Torah? What verse truly represents what Judaism is all about?
One of the best known answers is given by Rabbi Akiva in the Jerusalem Talmud, citing: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Another answer, given by Ben Azai, suggests: “This is the book of the generations of Adam – on the day that God created humankind, God made humankind in God’s Image” (Genesis 5;1).
The Great Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) in his book Netivot Olam offers an additional answer by Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazi, who in a midrashic debate among the sages claims to have found an even more essential verse: “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.” (Exodus 29;39 and Numbers 28;4) [referring to the daily perpetual offering brought every morning and evening].
The Maharal goes on to tell that an anonymous rabbi who witnessed the debate among the sages stood up and said that the law is in accordance with Ben Pazi, and we’re perplexingly left to wonder why the initial verses offered by Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai – the ones about loving kindness and being made in God’s image – are overshadowed by what seems to be a peculiar instruction to offer animal sacrifices twice on a daily basis.
I was recently re-introduced to Shimon Ben Pazi’s choice for the essential verse of Torah while attending the Clergy Leadership Program at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and it has been providing me with comfort and inspiration on difficult days. Thank God (or whoever is in charge, as I sometimes like to think) for moments of comfort and inspiration, right? I know that many in our community and elsewhere have been steering their hearts and minds through a sea of challenges over these past few months and coming together in community. Being in dialogue with each other has been such an important part of a solid spiritual foundation for quite a few, including myself. My foundation has been my co-clergy, chosen family and close friends (groups that aren’t necessarily exclusive to each other), meditation and music, and the insight, compassion, wisdom and empathy they all inspire.
And Ben Pazi’s choice of essential verse of Torah provided me with comfort too. I’d like to think that it recognizes that loving your neighbor as yourself, and walking in this world with constant consciousness of the divinity within each of us, are most important aspirations, yet they are built upon a foundation of consistency and persistence. Our commitment to stay on track, regardless of reluctance, hindrance or whatever comes our way, must always be present, as without a daily commitment as the anchor of our (Jewish) life, spiritual beliefs and proclamations often are lost in abstractions. Just like the daily offerings of sacrifices, so are we reminded and encouraged to commit to growth, evolution and persistence.
And in the context of facing challenging times and moments, Ben Pazi’s chosen verse reminds me of the virtue of persistence. Norman Fisher, a Jewish American Soto Zen roshi, poet and Buddhist author, describes it as “the ability to hang in there with something difficult without turning away, to be willing to simply wait when waiting is what’s called for.” He goes on to say that “[persistence] is not a throwaway virtue, and it is not simply a form of passivity. Persistence is a powerful and positive virtue that can be cultivated and developed. It’s a key practice for nurturing all the qualities of maturity that we value: stability, responsibility, self-acceptance, a loving heart—all require that we persist with what we are up to, that we stick with steadfastly, without glancing off or running away…. Stubbornness and persistence are not the same thing. Stubbornness has a meanness to it, like a pit bull hanging on to a pants leg. It’s reactive and often self-destructive…. Persistence, on the other hand,
is not reactive or mean. It has a quality of faith and determination to continue, whether results are apparent or not. Persistence bears you up and helps you to move forward against the odds. In fact, with the practice of persistence, odds don’t matter much one way or the other. Persistence doesn’t wear you out by forcing you into a tight corner, as stubbornness does.”
Wherever you find yourself, I hope BCC can be a strong part of your foundation with all it has to offer. I hope you come celebrate with us on March 26th at BCC’s annual Awards Brunch and Concert. It will be memorable for me personally, not only because I find myself amongst the sweetest and most talented honorees one could ask for, but also because it will be my last proper appearance at BCC before I embark on my Sabbatical. I originally planned on visiting congregations throughout the country, watching their communal life from the pews or in collaboration with their clergy from the bimah. Plans might change now that Tikvah, my new puppy (12 weeks old as those lines are written) has entered my life. I definitely will continue to record more new music for an album I hope to release later this year, as well as visiting the conference of the American Conference of Cantors and Hava Nashira. Thank you to the entire congregation for granting me the three months of respite, for the honor of being one of the Brunch honorees and for truly allowing me to be of service to you.
Let us keep meeting each other, persistently willing to show up with whatever arises, determined to continue, whether results are apparent or not.