The Path of Return

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





The Path of Return

By Rav Zvi Shimon



I. The Path of Torah


            This week's Torah reading 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? Our Sages and the majority of the commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bechayei, etc.) interpret that the passage is 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. The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) explains that the continuation of the passage is an elaboration of the opening verse. The Torah is not beyond the understanding of the people that they should say "who among us can go up to heaven and bring it to us," nor is it distant from them that they should say "who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and bring it to us." There are two claims which our section renounces, the first that the Torah is beyond the people. The second, that it is far away from them. What is the meaning of these two claims?


            Our sages offer the following interpretation of the clause "it is not in heaven":


What is the meaning of "It is not in heaven"?  Samuel said: The Torah is not to be found amongst astrologers whose work is to gaze at the heavens. (Midrash Rabba 8:6)


            Knowledge of God's ways is not acquired through astrology, horoscopes, or the like. In the words of Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888):


[the Torah] contains no secret metaphysical references to anything beyond the grasp of the ordinary human mind and it is not far away from you,' to understand and keep, it does not assume anything but the ordinary conditions of the lives of those who are in duty bound to observe it.


            Ironically, as in ancient times, there is presently a very strong tendency amongst those searching for spiritual significance to search for it in metaphysical, non-rational forms. This stress on the mystical and the super-natural has usually been associated with religions of the Far East, but has recently made much headway in the West, as well as in Israel. Our Sages state that this is not the approach of Torah. Torah speaks in a cognitive manner. Rabbi Soloveitchik (Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, United States, 1903-1993) stresses that this is one of the fundamental differences between halakhic man (Halakha is the corpus of Jewish law. Halakhic man is the individual who lives by this corpus of law.) and 'homo religious,' the typical religious man:


Halakhic man's relationship to transcendence differs from that of the universal 'homo religiosus.' Halakhic man does not long for a transcendent world...It is this world which constitutes the stage for the halakhic man, the setting for halakhic man's life. It is here that the halakha (Jewish Law) can be implemented to a greater or lesser degree. It is here that it can pass from   potentiality into actuality. (Halakhic Man, p. 30)


            The focus of Torah is on this world and its method is a cognitive one. While 'homo religiosus' seeks the divine in the abstruse and esoteric, halakhic man concentrates on the rational and comprehensible.


            Our Sages offer an additional interpretation of the clause "not in heaven".


It is not in heaven (30:11 f.).  Moses said to Israel: 'Do not say: 'Another Moses will arise and bring us another Torah from heaven;' I therefore warn you, It is not in heaven, that is to say, no part of it has remained in heaven.' (Midrash Rabba Ibid.)


            Heaven is not used here in the physical sense, in relation to the stars and other celestial bodies, but rather refers to the divine. The Torah was given by God in its totality. After having been given to man, it is man, not God, who determines the law. In the words of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274):


Similarly, if [a "prophet"] nullifies a concept which was transmitted by the oral tradition, or states with regard to one of the Torah's laws that God commanded him to render such and such a judgment, or that such and such is the law regarding a particular instance and the decision follows a certain opinion, he is a false    prophet.  [This applies] even if he performs a wonder, for he is coming to deny the Torah, which states: 'It is not in the heavens.' (Laws of 'Yesodei Ha-Torah' 9:4)


            Rabbi Hirsch elaborates this idea as follows:


The teachings and actions which it has in view do not move in the sphere of the supernatural or the heavens, and nothing which was necessary for its being understood and accomplished remained in heaven in the Divine Revelation, that you could say: where can we find a mind superhumanly enlightened that it penetrate into the secrets of heaven for us, or bring us a new revelation from heaven, which we still lack that will complement our present knowledge, then we could keep the Torah in accordance with the Will of God...


These three words, 'not in heaven' are the most effective means of protection and defense against the pretentious claim to supernatural enlightenment or even supporting itself on some Divine revelation to influence the Law and teachings in Israel.  Only erudition and scholarship derived from the text and tradition, not some higher inspiration or prompting can lay claim to any validity regarding the teachings and keeping the commandments of the Torah."


            It is up to the scholars to expound the Torah to the best of their intellectual abilities. Prophecy or divine inspiration do not influence the decision making process. A sage can only attempt to convince his peers through rational explication. Miracles or divine intervention are not heeded. In contrast to other religions whose fate lies inexorably in the hands of charismatic figures, Judaism's Law is determined by the analysis of an assembly of sages versed in the intricacies of Jewish Law.


            So far, we have analyzed the first assertion, that God's command is not "beyond" the people, "not in heaven." What is the meaning of the second assertion, that God's command is not "far off," "not beyond the sea?" How is this second statement different from the first?


            The Bechor Shor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bechor Shor, France, 12 century) suggests that the difference between the two statements is that in the first clause, God's command is depicted as something which is beyond man, which is unachievable, while in the second, it is depicted as something distant, difficult to achieve, but, nevertheless, possible. God's command is first located in heaven, beyond the reach of mortals, and then located across the sea, distant and extremely difficult to reach [in ancient times], but not impossible. From whence does this difficulty arise?


            The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) offers a fascinating explanation:


'Neither is it beyond the sea.'  You also have no need for the wise men of the generation, who are far away, to expound it for you in such a manner that it will be possible for you [to do it] in exile.  Hence, it is not difficult for you [to perform] as [sometimes] occurs with a commandment, that needs the interpretation of the wise men of the generation to clarify doubts which arise [regarding its observance] or [certain commandments] which cannot possibly be fulfilled in exile.


            The Sforno interprets our section as a direct continuation of the previous one, that describes a situation in which the nation of Israel is in exile. The beginning of our chapter reads: "When all these things befall you - the blessing and the curse that I have set before you - and you take them to heart AMIDST THE VARIOUS NATIONS to which the Lord your God has BANISHED you, and you return to the Lord your God..."(30:1,2). Our passage speaks of a situation in which the people are in exile and consider it impossible to keep the commandments in a foreign land. The Torah responds, "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?" The Torah is not confined to the land of Israel. Ideally, it is meant to be observed in Israel, but it is also to be observed while in exile, across the sea. The Netziv adds that the claim is not only that the Torah can not be observed in exile, but that it can not be kept while the Temple is destroyed. Rabbi Hirsch formulates this claim as follows:


The teachings and actions which it has in view are not referring to somewhere else on earth far away from you, given for conditions others than yours, that you could say: "the Torah may be quite all right for other parts of the world where the climate and conditions of life are quite different to those here where I live, places which are oceans away, and not knowing them hinders me from even understanding these laws which I am supposed to keep; somebody must first cross the sea and study the basis of the laws on the spot, and brings us back the information that we lack, so that we can learn to understand them correctly before we keep them. This is all mistaken.


            Rabbi Hirsch is apparently hinting to claims of his contemporary Jewish reformers in Germany. According to his interpretation, the Torah responds that observance of God's command is not limited to the land of Israel nor to a time when the Temple stands. God's command is not constricted to a land "beyond the sea"; it is eternally binding upon the people of Israel. Geographical changes or historical developments do not annul the obligation of keeping God's command which is eternal.


            Our Sages identify another possible basis for claiming that the Torah is too difficult, that it is "beyond the sea":


The Rabbis say: The fool enters the synagogue, and seeing there people occupying themselves with the law, he asks: 'How does a man begin to read the law?'  They answer him: 'First a man reads from a Scroll, then the Book [of the law], and then the prophets; when he has completed the study of the Scriptures he learns the Talmud, and then the Halakhot, and then the Haggadot.'  After hearing all this, [the fool] says to himself, 'When can I learn all this?' and he turns back from the gate. ... But the man who is wise - what does he do?  He learns one chapter every day until he completes the whole law.  God said: 'It is not too hard, but if [you find it] too hard, it is your own fault, because you do not study it.'  Hence the force of, 'For this commandment which I command you this day is not beyond you nor is it far off....'(Midrash Rabba 8:3)


            According to our Sages, the claim regarding the difficulty of the Torah does not rest on changes in historical circumstances but rather on the vastness of the Torah. It is too large to be mastered. The Torah responds that if one has the willpower and the discipline, then the Torah is within his reach.  We will conclude our analysis of the two claims with the homiletic interpretation of the Sage, Rabbi Yochanan (Israel, 3rd century):


Rabbi Yochanan expounded: 'It is not in heaven,' it is not to be found among the arrogant; 'neither is it beyond the sea,' it is not to be found among merchants or dealers.(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 55a)


            The word heaven is not a physical designation, but rather a state of mind. Only those who approach the study of Torah with humility become knowledgeable in it. However, those who are proud spirited, whose egos reach the heavens will not become wise. Likewise, the word sea does not designate a location but rather a vocation. Those who constantly travel the seas, who are always busy with their business, will not have the time or the peace of mind to acquire the wisdom of Torah. Only those with the appropriate character traits and set of priorities will become wise in Torah.


            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 meant by the statement that the Torah "is very near to you?" Rabbi Hirsch offers the following commentary:


For what the Torah is about, its contents, lie right next to you, what it is about is you yourself and its contents concern your own life here on earth.  To understand them you have only to delve down into your most innermost self, and to look at your material human conditions with open eyes.  And for what you require to understand beyond the mere words of the Book of Laws which has been given over to you, you have not to go to heaven and not 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 which are most pertinent and critical for our lives. This is the secret of its eternal nature. Since it treats the issues which are most central to our lives it always has what 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 Hoffman (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, Germany, 1843-1921) explains "in your mouth" in 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 father to son that the knowledge of Torah is acquired.


            According to Rabbi Hoffman 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. 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 effects 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 inculcated by those who study it and shape their whole 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 effect 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


            We opened our discussion by stating that the majority of the commentators are of the opinion 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 [as above] '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 do so.  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 misdoing. 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 mentioned in our section. 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 complimentary. 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 and abandoning sin. The second involves a 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 where 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."