In this week’s parsha, Nitvazim-Vayeilech, we read a famous few verses:
“For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heavens, so you could say ‘Who can possibly go up to the heavens for us and take it for us, then we’ll hear and perform it!?’ Nor is it across the sea, so you could say “Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, and then we’ll hear it, and perform it!?” Rather, the Torah is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it.” (Devarim 30:11-1)
These verses have great meaning to us, especially at this time of year, leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Hashem tells us that teshuva, repentance, is not impossible. It might seem impossible, and just simply too difficult for us to do, but it’s not! The Torah is always within arms reach. It’s very close by.
A comforting message. But is it true? Teshuva is very, very hard. Imagine a person who doesn’t keep any mitzvot at all. It’s an easy thing for them to change their lives around and live a Torah observant life? Of course not! It’s the hardest thing in the world! So what do these verses mean?
Rav Yisrael Salanter writes that people make a classic mistake around this time of year. We go to shule Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and we get inspired. That’s not the mistake! It’s good to be inspired 🙂 The problem is we become so inspired and regretful of our previous mistakes that we decide to change…. Completely. We want to really impress Hashem and be blessed with a good year, so we guarantee Him big changes this year. BIG changes. And here lies the mistake. Because big changes take an incredible amount of strength to stick to, and more often than not, a few weeks after Yom Kippur, maybe even less, those big changes have disappeared out the window of all the temptations the outside world sticks in front of us, and we are back to our pre-Yom Kippur selves. Unchanged.
When this happens year after year we never get anywhere! So Rav Yisrael Salanter tells us that we should be doing teshuva differently. We have to focus on the small things. Things that are within our reach. Things that we know we will be able to stick to. And now we can understand how Hashem tells us in the weeks Torah portion not to worry, because teshuva is not so hard, and the Torah is never out of reach. Because Hashem Himself doesn’t want us to bite off more than we can chew. The Torah itself speaks to each of us where we are and tells us to take that one step forward. That’s not too hard. That’s not out of reach. It’s not way up in the heavens and it’s not across the sea. It’s right at your doorstep.
Interestingly, the gemara (Eruvin 55a) brings out an additional point from our verse:
“The Torah is not in Heaven”, but if it was, you’d have to learn how to build a spacecraft and get up there and get it.
“The Torah is not across the sea” but if it was, you’d have to buy a ship and get there.
This idea seems to go against the understanding we just discussed! Our verses are telling us the Torah is not far away. Teshuva is not too hard. Now the gemara is understanding them as also saying that even if it was very hard we would still have to get there somehow!
But if we put these two understandings togethor I think we get a complete picture.
We do need a certain perseverance and determination, as the gemara is explaining. On Yom Kippur we say to Hashem that ultimately we are planning to get there, and to do teshuva completely, even if the Torah is in the heavens or across the sea – wherever it is, we’ll make it our business to be there.
That’s the big picture. But right now, all we can do is what is within our reach, and that is to take a small step forward, whatever that may be for each of us. And then, slowly but steadily, step by step, we can reach that ultimate goal and reach the stars, or cross the sea, or even acheive perfection, as we uncover the infinite potential that Hashem breathed into each one of us when He gave us our neshama.
Some food for thought 🙂