“For this Mitzvah which I command you today, it is not hidden from you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven , that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it ? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it ? But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart that you may do it.” (Devarim Chapter 30 verses 11-14)
Which Mitzvah are we referring to in the above verses ? What is it that we have to strive for to attain, that we perceive to be unobtainable, but in fact is really very near to us ?
The same answer is given from two separate sources in the Gemara:
Bava Metzia (59b):
This most famous passage relates to a halachik argument regarding the status of the oven of Achnai. We witness a major disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Yehoshua. Each Rabbi argues his case, bringing as many proofs as are possible. At some stage, Rabbi Eliezer, is supported by a voice from heaven – a Bat Kol. However, Rabbi Yehoshua remains unconvinced declaring our passuk – “It is not in the heaven”.
The above passage clearly implies that our passukim are dealing with Torah. That is to say – Torah is not in the heavens, but in our mouths and in our hearts. This understanding of the verses quoted above, is reiterated in the Gemara in Eruvin (55a):
We are instructed that even if the Torah was in the heaven, we would be required to rise unto the heavens to attain it. Even if it were beyond the sea we would have to journey to succeed in realizing our purpose of fulfilling its’ words.
Once again we see, that according to Chazal, the Mitzva referred to in our passage is indeed that of acquiring Torah. This theme is echoed in the Haemek Davar of the Netziv.
With that in mind, we can see that we are in fact being instructed by the Torah itself: That although the norms and requirements of the Torah, sometimes appear to be out of touch (in the heavens), this is actually not the case, they are very much in touch, they are eternal, they will always be relevant for every one of us, whoever we are, wherever we may be, whatever we may be doing. That although the Torah appears to be unobtainable, both when learning, and when aiming to fulfil its’ requirements, it is, in reality, within our grasp. With the right amount of effort we will find it, and when we do so, we will wonder how we ever thought otherwise, because it is in our mouths and in our hearts.
However, at first glance, not everyone appears to agree with the explanation quoted above.
The Sefer Haikarim (Chapter 25 Maamar 4), explains: That from the context of the pasukim immediately preceding our passage, we see that the Mitzva being referred to is in fact the Mitzvah of Teshuva. Both in pasuk 2 and in pasuk 10, returning to Hashem is explicitly mentioned, it therefore appears to be obvious, that “This Mitzva” is simply a continuation of the previous verses and thus clearly relates to Teshuva.
We are being told that repentance requires actions of both the heart and the mouth, i.e. regret of the heart, and confessions by the mouth. Repentance is of such fundamental importance, that even were it to be in the heavens or across the sea, we would be required to attain it.
The Ramban also states that our passage refers to the Mitzvah of Teshuva, stressing that to return to Hashem is not a matter that is far from us, on the contrary, it is our true nature, it is possible to attain at any junction of life, wherever we may be.
Similarly, the Sforno understands the parsha to be referring to Teshuva. He states, quite beautifully, that Teshuva is not distant from us that it requires prophecy to attain, neither is it a phenomenon that is far from us, that it would require wise men to understand and teach us. It is in your heart for you to discover, and in doing so you will indeed, return to Hashem.
The Meshech Chochmah also understands our parsha to be referring to Teshuva. In a phenomenal comment, he notes the difference in terminology in our parsha, as opposed to an earlier reference in parshat Re’eh: In our parsha, Hashem places before us the choice between life and death. Yet earlier on in sefer Devarim, the choice is between a blessing (Beracha) and a curse (Kelala). What has happened in between these two parshiot to have raised the stakes from beracha to life, and from kelala to death ? The Meshech Chochmah explains, that the concept of Teshuva has been introduced. Before this weeks’ parsha there was no Mitzva regarding repentance, thus the stakes were much lower. However, if after Hashem has given us the opportunity to return to him, we nevertheless continue to distance ourselves from the truth, then surely the result will be more severe.
Yet we are left asking the question – how is it that the Gemara totally ignores the context of these verses, insisting that we are talking about Torah, whilst on the other hand, the Rishonim quoted above, as well as the Meshech Chochmah, though supported by the context of the verses, totally ignore the understanding of the Talmud, insisting that our verses clearly relate to the act of repentance ?
An answer to this question was suggested to me by Mori veRabbi Rabbi Yitschak Bernstein of Blessed memory.
The Nefesh Hachaim (Shaar 4 Chapter 31), explains that Torah and Teshuva are essentially the same thing. Torah is the means to the ends of Teshuva. If one is distant from Hashem, and is in search of a derech to reach Him, then that derech is by way of the Torah.
The Torah is the spoken word of Hashem, it is the handbook to life, there is no other. Hashem gave us the world, and he gave us the guidebook with which to successfully live our lives. Whenever we fall by the way or stray in the wrong direction, the Torah will enable us to return to the right path. We arrive in this world with Neshamot Tehorot, as we go through our lives we strive to keep that purity in place, and to refine ourselves, from the moment we arrive in this world until the end of our lives we are constantly returning to the source from whence we came – Hashem. Our entire life is a process of Teshuva, and the means to that process is the Torah.
So in actual fact we see that there is no dispute between the Talmud and the Rishonim, “This Mitzvah” does in fact refer to both Torah and Teshuvah for they are indeed one and the same.
Ketiva Vechatima Tova