We read in this week’s parsha, Nitzavim:
“For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
Most interpret these verses to mean that the Torah lies open for us to embrace. It holds no secret codes, nor does Torah study require a pilgrimage. Indeed, our rabbis teach that the Torah has four facets — simple reading, reference, homily, and kaballah — and G-d demands only that we abide by the simple reading.
The Talmud (Tractate Baba Kamma) explains “not in heaven” literally: A dispute arose over a matter of ritual purity, and the individual with the minority opinion called forth miracles to validate his point, even invoking a voice from heaven. The rabbis argued, however, that the Torah “is not in heaven” and the earthly authorities decide questions of halacha. The Talmud records that G-d agreed, a heavenly voice calling out: “My children have bested Me.”
A similarly literal interpretation of “not far” is that we rely on our local traditions to determine our conduct, irrespective of what another community may decide. American Jews, for example, follow halachic authorities in the U.S.
Ezor Eliyahu (Lemberg, 1889) explains that the references to heaven and the ocean address two excuses people use for not abiding by the mitzvot.
One group excuses itself by arguing that the Torah sits in heaven; only a completely righteous person can become observant, they say. A variation on this argument is that the Torah lies beyond the ocean, meaning that only one who willingly accepts martyrdom — who is willing to cast himself into the sea like Jonah — can abide by the Torah.
To this, G-d answers that the key to observance lies very near. “With your mouth” (by studying the Torah) “and with your heart” (by meaning well) you can “do it” (perform the 613 commandments).
Ramban (Nachmanides) states that rather than referring to the Torah in general, “this command” (singular rather than plural) in the context of these verses refers to repentance: the preceding verses foretell our successful efforts to return to G-d; verse 11 then informs us that the path to repentance is neither unattainable nor far away; and verse 12 states that the path is not difficult. As verse 14 continues: “For the matter is near to you, with your mouth and your heart you can do it.” To repent, one must express a desire to improve and apply oneself to that undertaking. The path to atonement lies at hand.
Alternately, Ezor Eliyahu explains verses 11-14 as concluding the narrative in chapter 30, verses 1-10. Verses 1-7 relate that, once the Jews will experience “the blessing and the curse” — i.e. reach rock bottom — they will repent and G-d will show them mercy, gathering them from exile and returning the people to their homeland.
The text then indicates the need for a second repentance. Verses 9 and 10 promise G-d will reward us if we return to Him “with all [our] hearts and souls.” The ultimate reconciliation will occur after G-d returns us to Israel, yet verses 11-14 consider repentance “not over the ocean” but near to us.
These passages inform us that we can bring our redemption by engaging in that first repentance: repenting in the diaspora. We need only to start the process.
The takeaway from these verses is that Torah observance is neither hidden (i.e. beyond our intellect), nor far away in the dead past. It does not reside in heaven, either, requiring an infallible leader of the nation who alone can “fix us.” It does not lie “across the ocean,” neither literally nor in a theoretical more-than-earthly utopia. With our current understanding and mental capacities we shall observe it — we do the best we can with what we have.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefardminyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland. It meets for all minyanim on Shabbat and yomimtovim in the upstairs small beit midrash in the new wing at YISE.