In his introduction to his Eiyn Yaakov, a commentary on the Aggadic sections of the Talmud, Rav Yaakov Ibn Chaviv quotes a discussion regarding which is the most important verse in the Torah. Although each word is significant as the word of G-d, the rabbis debated which verse encapsulates the essence of our Torah. Ben Zomah, the second-century sage, claimed that the most important verse is the first of the Shema , "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One". This verse, which declares our acceptance of monotheism and the centrality of G-d in our lives, is one that many Jews uttered as they were killed sanctifying G-d's name.
Rabbi Akiva (who recited the Shema as he was martyred by the Romans) claimed that the most important verse is "and you shall love your neighbour as yourself". Careful study reveals that this verse is really the flip side of the Shema . Love of G-d must lead to love of man, who was created in G-d's image; and love of man must lead us to love of G-d, who created man. Judaism has always emphasized that our Torah consists of mitzvoth that address both the relationship between man and man, and between man and G-d. We would surely understand if the discussion ended here.
However, a third opinion is quoted, that the most important verse in the entire Torah comes from this week's parsha , "the first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon" (29:39). It is hard to think of a more innocuous verse in the Bible than the aforementioned one, which describes the daily sacrifice brought on the altar.
While acceptance of G-d and love of man are the aims of Torah, it is the daily performance of mitzvoth every morning and every evening that lead us to our goal. The daily, even monotonous routine of performing mitzvoth is ultimately what elevates us to higher and higher levels. For Jews who come to shul only three times a year, it is no wonder that Yom Kippur has little impact. One cannot expect to find meaning in davening if it is only an occasional experience. We all recognize the tremendous effort that goes into making an Olympic athlete or a concert pianist; although we only see the finished product, it is years and years of hard work that enables one to reach the pinnacle of excellence. It is no different with Judaism. We can't expect religion to be meaningful unless we work on it on a consistent basis, morning and evening.
We live in a generation that seeks and demands instant gratification. We are so impatient that we can't even wait the few seconds it takes to get connected to the Internet. We want happiness, pleasure, money...and we want it right now.
This same mistaken approach is often applied to Judaism. Become knowledgeable in Judaism in five easy classes! Read this book and become an expert! Even the notion that a year in Israel spent in intensive study makes one a talmid chacham is preposterous.
Becoming a knowledgeable Jew takes years of hard work. Growing morally and ethically as a Jew is perhaps even harder. It is work that must be attended to daily. "If you leave me for a day, for two days I will leave you" ( Midrash ). But we all know that it is only that which we work for in life that has meaning. Acceptance of G-d and learning how to love man is a long process. Working towards this is the goal of Judaism, day in and day out.
"The first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon." This is the essence of Judaism. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.