As is well known, the reading of Parshat Netzavim always immediately precedes Rosh HaShana. Last year we examined this phenomenon from the perspective of the mitzvah of Teshuva. This year I would like to approach the issue from a slightly different angle, by focusing on perek 30, passuk 11-14.
This may seem a peculiar place to start, since at first glance, these verses do not necessarily have anything to do with Teshuva. Perhaps the most famous phrase in the passukim, “lo bashamayim he”, “it (i.e. the Torah) is not in the heavens”, is of course seared into our consciousness by the story of “Tanur Achnai”, the serpentine oven, as related in the gemara in Baba Metziah (59b). There we are told of the titanic battle of wills waged between Rabbi Eliezer on the one hand and Rabban Gamliel and his court on the other regarding the ritual purity of this particular oven. Unable to sway his interlocutors through the logic of his argument, Rabbi Eliezer attempts to “go over their heads”, first figuratively by calling on nature to change its course in order to prove the validity of his arguments, and then quite literally by calling on a “bat kol”, a heavenly voice, to vindicate his position. In rejecting this Divine intercession the Rabbis resort to our passuk: “lo bashamayim he”, the Torah is no longer found in the heavens. It is now in our possession, and it is ours to interpret.
While one might argue that we have taken the passuk out of context, but when viewed within the framework of all four passukim then we do in fact find ourselves discussing Teshuva, this too is far from clear. The passuk (30:11) states that the mitzvah that I command of you today is neither beyond our understanding or far away. Yet the verse does not specify what that particular command is. Two schools of thought emerge from the meforshim in answer to this question. One suggests that the passuk refers to the entire Torah. This would appear to be the position of the gemara in Baba Metziah which we just quoted. It also seems to be the position of the gemara in Eruvin (54-55), which understands the statement of “lo bashamayim he/lo mever l’yam he” (it is not across the ocean, out of reach) as telling us that even were the Torah inaccessible we would be required to study it and make it ours. Nechama Leibovitch points out that this gemara is the basis of Rashi’s commentary on our passuk, thereby suggesting that this too is Rashi’s opinion. The passuk refers to Torah, not Teshuva.
The second school of thought, enunciated most cogently by Ramban, is that the verses are in fact alluding to the mitzvah of Teshuva. If this is the case, then we must ask ourselves what connection does the allegory of “lo bashamayim he / lo mever l’yam he” come to teach us in the context of Teshuva.
Ramban suggests the simple meaning of the verses is the correct one, namely that the act of repentance is not an impossible one, but rather is within our grasp. Seforno (and hundreds of years later Malbim as well) expand on this approach. When contemplating the demands of Teshuva, an individual might easily become overwhelmed and conclude that he can not hope to fulfill these demands on his own. Perhaps he needs a navi, or someone else who is “closer” to Hashem in order to guide him and lead him on his quest for forgiveness and atonement? “Lo bashamayim he” says the passuk. The wherewithal to repent lies within us, not with someone with special access to Hashem. Perhaps divine guidance is unnecessary, but human guidance in the form of hard to reach chachamim and batei din is a sine qua non for repenting? “Lo mever l’yam he” answers the passuk. One need not travel far in order to consult with sages far away. The ability to repent is at our fingertips. “Ki karov ailecha hadavar meod” “the act is very close to you” (30:14).
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understands the passukim in a similar, though not quite identical manner. (It is worth noting that he understands the passukim as referring to the whole Torah, as Rashi did. Nonetheless his comments can be applied to the narrower construct of Teshuva as well). “Lo bashamayim he” defangs those who would claim that Torah can only be truly understood by those who have supernatural gifts, and only such an individual can make Torah relevant for us. Similarly, “lo mever l’yam he” debunks those who would claim that the Torah is meant to be applied in specific places and can not be easily adapted to other environments. Nothing can be further from the truth. The Torah (and by extension Teshuva) is accessible to all, and the only requirements for its attainment, modestly, righteousness and honesty, are all within reach. We have the tools to study Torah, we need nothing else.
Clearly, if we follow the approach advocated by those who understand that “lo bashamayim he” refers to the opportunity to do Teshuva, the point that the Torah is making is that Teshuva is accessible and that we ultimately have no excuse not to embrace that opportunity. If this is the case, then we find ourselves confronted by a paradox. If repenting is so easy, why do we find it to be so hard?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitch Z”zal, the venerated Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva, raised this very question on a number of occasions (“Sichot Mussar” 5732:39 and 5731:32). Rav Shmuelevitch points to two character traits which turn what should be a simple process of repentance into a far more difficult challenge. Firstly, people by nature are not very introspective. We assume that we are good people and therefore while in theory there might always be something to improve, we are certainly not in need of any fundamental change. Our neighbor, on the other hand, really does need a total makeover, but that is their problem. Teshuva might be easily achieved, but not by the individual who believes that she has no need for it.
The second factor is an extension of the first. We are all creatures of routine. This is true of all aspects of life. Even the most spontaneous of individuals is prisoner to the routine of acting on impulse, no less then the person who has taken the same route to work for the past thirty years, and has followed the same routine from nine to five once they arrive. This is also true of our behaviors, both positive and negative. When a person adopts positive behaviors – shemirat mitzvoth – they ultimately become part of her routine and personality. Similarly, when an individual falls into a pattern of sin, the routine removes the sting from our consciousness. If I speak lashon hara on a regular basis, I hardly notice it (and woe to the person who tries to tell me differently!). Once again, while Teshuva may be technically easy to do, I have no need for it. My routine has convinced me that I am not a sinner.
This explains why often it takes a sudden shock or change to trigger repentance. When confronted with a major challenge to our comfortable lives, we are forced to face reality. Our perspective changes and we suddenly see the world for what it is. Sometimes we might even find it difficult to relate to old friends and acquaintances who have not shared this experience.
Nonetheless, as R. Shmuelevitch points out in the name of Rabbenu Yona in the Shaarei Teshuva (shaar 1) this is not the only, (nor even the preferred) path to Teshuva. Often, adopting a new routine is more than sufficient. Once we have created a new expectation for ourselves, reality follows. We only need the courage to look at ourselves in the mirror, warts and all, and the will to change the image that we see.
Rav Michael Susman