"It is Very Near to You" - The Path of Return
The Torah reading before Rosh Ha-shana (parashat Nitzavim) includes one of the most beautiful passages in the Torah:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not beyond you nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to heaven and bring it to us so that we can hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and bring it to us, that we may hear it and observe it?' But it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
What commandment is the Torah referring to in the first verse of our passage? We shall see that there are two main schools of thought on this question, and their answers turn out to be complementary.
I. The Path of Torah
Our Sages and the majority of the commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bechayei, etc.) interpret the passage as relating to the entire Torah, to all the commandments. The first verse states that the Torah is not "beyond" the people, nor is it distant from them, while the next verses elaborate these claims. These verses have been subject to much fascinating interpretation over the years, but we will leave them aside for now.
After describing what the Torah is not, our section states what it is: "But it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." What is the meaning of the statement that the Torah "is very near to you?" Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) offers the following commentary:
For what the Torah is about, its contents, lie right next to you: it is about you yourself, and its contents concern your own life here on earth. To understand the Torah's contents, you have only to delve down into your innermost self, and to look at your material human conditions with open eyes. What you must understand beyond the mere words of the Book of Laws has been given over to you; you need not go to heaven nor to the other side of the ocean.... To "learn" with your intelligence and heart the Torah in the way of the oral tradition, for the purpose of knowing and understanding and doing its commandments, is the only way - and everywhere and at all times it lies near to everybody - to understand God's Torah and from it to understand our eternal mission on earth.... Since the subject of this Torah is our own life and the means of understanding it lie so near at hand, it will accompany us through all our wanderings through the ages, and after all our going astray and all our trials we shall find our way back again to everlasting faithfulness to it.
The Torah deals with the issues that are most pertinent and critical for our lives. This is the secret of its eternal nature. Since it treats the most central issues in our lives, it always has something to teach and its relevance is everlasting.
Our verse concludes by stating that the "commandment" is "in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." What is meant by "in your mouth and in your heart?"
Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann (Germany, 1843-1921) explains "in your mouth" as a reference to "the oral tradition by which the Torah is passed down from generation to generation." This idea of the study of Torah by word of mouth appears throughout the Torah. Examples include: "Teach them [the words of the Torah] to your children and SPEAK of them when you are at home, when traveling on the road..." (Deuteronomy 6:7), and "Teach your children to SPEAK of them" (ibid. 11:19). It is through this oral tradition passed from parent to child that the knowledge of Torah is acquired.
According to Rabbi Hoffmann, the second specification, "in your heart," obliges us to keep God's Torah in our hearts. It is not enough that we know the Torah; we must love it as well. The Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1817-1893) adds that the second specification, "in your heart," defines the first specification, "in your mouth." The study of Torah ("in your mouth") must be performed in such a way that it affects one's heart. The worship of God obliges the integration of both intellect and emotion. Detached academic analysis does not satisfy one's obligation of studying Torah. Torah must penetrate the soul; it must be internalized by those who study it and shape their outlook on life.
The end of our verse states the ultimate purpose of the study of Torah: "in your mouth and in your heart, TO OBSERVE IT." Study of Torah must lead to its observance. Torah must affect not only one's thoughts and feelings, but also one's deeds. The Torah is meant to be observed and implemented in one's life.
II. The Path of Repentance
While the majority of commentators believe that the "commandment" referred to in the first verse of our passage is the entire Torah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) disagrees:
The correct interpretation is that when he refers to the entire Torah, he says, 'EVERY commandment which I command you this day' (Deuteronomy 8:1). Rather, [the expression used here,] 'this commandment,' refers to [the commandment of] repentance aforementioned, for the verse 'and you shall return to the Lord your God' (30:2) constitutes a commandment wherein he commands us to repent. And the sense thereof is to state that 'if your outcasts be in the ends of the world' (30:4) and you are under the power of the nations, you can yet return to God and do 'according to all that I command you this day,' for the thing is not hard, nor far off from you, but rather very close to you to do it at all times and in all places. This is the sense of the expression, 'in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it,' meaning that they 'confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers' by word of their mouth, and return in their heart to God and accept the Torah upon themselves this day to perform it throughout the generations.
The Ramban states that our passage is referring to a specific commandment, the obligation to repent for one's sins. He claims that when referring to the entire Torah, Scripture states "EVERY commandment." However, in our passage, Scripture states "THIS commandment," and must therefore be referring to a specific commandment, the commandment of repentance stated at the beginning of our chapter. The Ramban then offers a novel explanation for the closing verse of our passage, "But it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." He suggests that the verse delineates the different components of repentance. "In your mouth" refers to the obligation to verbally confess one's sin. The second clause, "in your heart," refers to the obligation to regret one's having sinned and resolve in one's heart to change one's ways. These two elements of repentance are articulated by the Rambam:
What constitutes repentance? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his HEART, never to commit them again, as stated, "May the wicked abandon his ways..." (Isaiah 55:7). Similarly, he must regret the past as stated: "After I returned I regretted" (Jeremiah 31:18). [He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden [God] will testify concerning him that he will never return to his sin again... He must VERBALLY CONFESS and state these matters which he resolved in his heart. (Laws of Repentance 2:2)
The Torah informs us that repentance is not as difficult as one may conceive. It is not in the heavens nor is it across the sea. Even he who is distant from the path of God, who does not observe the precepts of the Torah, may, if he determines so in his heart, repent and be forgiven for his misdeeds. No matter how removed an individual may be, no matter how distant from a Torah lifestyle, he may still repent and change his ways.
III. The Path of Return
We have seen two different opinions regarding the identification of the "commandment" mentioin our passage. Our Sages and the majority of the commentators interpret our section as dealing with Torah in its entirety, while the Ramban holds that the commandment referred to is repentance. These differing opinions are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are actually complementary. The path of repentance and the path of Torah inevitably converge and become one.
Repentance consists of two major stages. The first involves turning away from and abandoning sin. The second involves revitalization and strengthening of one's commitment and attachment to God. This second stage is accomplished, first and foremost, through a commitment to the study and observance of the Torah. It is at this stage that the two paths become one. The path of Torah and the path of repentance merge into the path of return. This path is not in heaven nor is it beyond the sea, "but it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."