As we near the end of Sefer Devarim and the Torah as a whole, we find ourselves reading parshiot that take on a very philosophical nature. Most of the practical mitzvoth are already behind us and the narrative has run its course as well, except of course for the death of Moshe at the very end of Vezot Habracha. I find it interesting that Chazal have set the cycle in a way in which it is these parshiot that we read in the weeks surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I would like to focus on a few pesukim in this parsha:
“The mitzvah that I am commanding you today is not beyond you nor is it far from you. It is not in the heavens (for if it were) you could claim “who will rise to the heavens to teach us so that we may learn”. It is not overseas (for if it were) you could claim “who will travel the distance to bring it to us”. Rather it is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to fulfill”
In trying to understand this passage we need first determine what is meant by “the mitzvah”. Rashi in his comments on the Torah explains that we are referring to the Torah itself. “The mitzvah” is a generic term that entails all elements and mitzvoth of the Torah and we are being told that the Torah is close at hand and there are no real challenges to fulfilling all of its precepts. The Ramban prefers an alternate explanation- he understands the “mitzvah” to be a specific mitzvah- that of teshuvah, which was mentioned in the pesukim directly prior to the ones, quoted. For our purposes in this shiur we will use Rashi’s explanation, though much will be equally true using the Ramban as well.
As an individual who does his best to keep the Torah and mitzvoth I think I can speak for the rest of you by asking: What is meant by this? Is it really all that easy? Are there no challenges? Is the keeping of the Torah so simple that we can compare it to picking the ripe fruit in Gan Eden that I had to exert no effort in planting it? (I am not asking from a philosophical point of view but rather from a practical one, is it that easy to be a Jew?)
The answer seems to lie in a careful reading of the pasuk. The Torah tells us that the mitzvah is neither in the sky nor across the ocean. Had the mitzvah been located in one of these places we would have had a valid claim for not keeping it. The Torah mandates only actions which we have the ability to fulfill, in cases where one is physically unable to keep a mitzvah he is seen as exempt (“ones Rachmana patrei”). By the same token that travel to the heavens is an impossibility, and had the Torah been there we would be under no obligation to fulfill it, so to traveling overseas which even then was possible would also have exempted us do to the incredible effort needed to make such a journey.
The fact remains, though, that the Torah is not located in either of those places. We have the ability to keep the Torah right here on Earth and wherever we might be. The obstacles that remain are the ones that we set for ourselves. When we decide that a certain mitzvah is out of our reach that is a reality that we have created and we must be aware of this as the only way to overcome such a challenge is within our very own minds. The Torah is “in your mouth and in your heart” and is there for the taking, unless of course we have actually removed it from its convenient location.
I would like to add to this concept of the here and now of Torah from a different angle. Much of the Torah is a list of very specific items that we must do. On Pesach we must eat matzah, on Yom Kippur we must fast etc… We are guided explicitly where, when, how and even how much. Other parts of the Torah are more vague. We are told to love God, to fear Him, to love our fellow Jews and be honest. The application of this second, more general, category is very difficult. It is fairly easy for me to sit at my keyboard and write a convincing piece on the virtues of honesty in Judaism or discuss seeking God in our lives. These topics are the basis of morality and religious experience. The hard part is concretizing these into real life situations.
I believe that this may be an alternative explanation to the pesukim that we have chosen this week. We are cautioned against relating to the Torah in an esoteric manner. Rendering it a cause that we all feel strongly about but are unwilling to make any real commitment to, or effect any real significant change in our lives to realize the ideals that we hold so dear. We are told that the Torah is VERY CLOSE to us, actually within our very reach at any given moment, in our mouths and in our hearts.
In a weeks time we will sit in Bet Kenneset and hear the Chazan say the “Unetaneh Tokef” in Mussaf. After explaining the gravity of the day and the frightening peril which we face on the Day of Judgment, the entire congregation replies that “teshuvah, tefilla, and tzedakah have the ability to annul and overturn a bad decree!!” No believing Jew can deny the statement, one of our principles of faith is that of reward and punishment and if things are not going well we have but one plan- to be better people. However our impassioned prayers on Rosh Hashanah become hypocritical if not backed up by real actions. We must force ourselves not to “exile” the Torah to the heavens and overseas but rather to find ways of fulfilling all that we can in very real terms.
In conclusion I ask that you treat this shiur differently than most other shiurim. Don’t just read it, don’t just identify with it but at this very moment figure out how to apply it. We all must ask ourselves what am I really doing in order to change things in the world? It is not a theoretical issue it is very practical, in our mouths and in our hearts.