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Nitzavim/Vayelech: It Is Not Heaven

Nechama Leibowitz
Reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

We shall devote our attention in this chapter to one of the many passages dealing with Jewish fundamentals that occur towards the end of the Torah:

“For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldst say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldst say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” (30:11-14)

Our commentators differed regarding the interpretation of this passage from our parsha. The question to be decided is whether “this commandment” refers to the duty of repentance dealt with in the foregoing verses (ibid. 1-10). or whether the whole Torah. its obligations and precepts is being summed up in the one phrase: “this commandment.”

Nahmanides adheres to the former opinion, that the passage refers to the mitzvah of repentance (teshuvah), the Torah wishing to emphasize that nothing stands in its way and no man can find valid excuses of time. place and circumstance to defer the duty of returning to God. Commenting on the passage: “though any of thine be driven out into the outmost parts of heaven …” he states:

“Though you are still scattered amongst the peoples. you will still be able to return to the Lord and do all that I have commanded you today: for the matter is not beyond you or too wonderful for you. but it is near to you to perform. at all times and in all places. This is the implication of the passage. in that they should confess their iniquity and that of their forefathers with their mouths. and return in their hearts to the Lord and now accept the Torah for generations, as it is written: “Thou and thy children with all thy heart and with all thy soul.”

From here it is abundantly clear that Nahmanides connects “this commandment” with the duty of repentance outlined at the beginning of the chapter. Teshuvah, it is emphasized, is not dependent on external conditions, on where the Jewish people lives or on the pressure of alien cultures. It is purely a matter of individual free choice. It depends on his resolution to return to the Divine source, however far he has become alienated from it, and however numerous the barriers that have grown up between him and his Creator: “but the word is very nigh unto thee. in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

Albo, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, in his Sefer Ha Ikkarim (“Book of Principles”) takes a similar view, regarding all the three sections of the chapter as forming one whole.

A look at Nitzavim will convince us that the context is dealing with the subject of repentance: “See I have set before thee life and good…to love the Lord. hearken to His voice and to cleave unto him” (30:15-20). The chapter begins by outlining the precept of repentance calling on us to “turn unto the Lord with all thy heart … and soul” After this, the text extols the value of teshuvah by indicating how easy it was to achieve: “For this commandment is not too hard for thee … it is not in heaven … very nigh unto thee.” The text is certainly alluding to teshuvah. A pointer to this are the words: “in thy mouth and in thy heart to do it.” Teshuvah involves confession of the lips and remorse of the heart. The phrase: “it is not in heaven …” places an even greater value on teshuvah, implying that no effort is too great, even if it involves ascending to heaven in order to achieve repentance.

Reason postulates that no amends made by the sinner can be adequate. How much more so does this apply to mere verbal repentance which is recommended by the prophet Hosea when he states: “take with you words and return unto the Lord.” A special act of Divine grace must be presumed to make such repentance acceptable. Therefore the text calls on us to “choose life.” After it has demonstrated the facility of repentance, the text maintains it is only reasonable that we should not neglect the opportunity, which is a matter of life and death for us. The “life” alluded to is that which is attained in the observance of this precept of repentance and its aim: “to love the Lord thy God and hearken to His voice and cleave unto Him: for that is thy life and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land …”

Albo thus takes the view that the context indicates that we are dealing with the commandment of teshuvah. Most of our commentators hold this view to be untenable and maintain we are dealing with the whole complex of Jewish observance. Our Sages in the Talmud assume this to be the case, in their discussion of the passage:

“Set apart fixed times for Torah study (i.e. make every effort and use every subterfuge to promote Torah) as R. Avdimi bar Hama observed on the text: “It is not in heaven … nor beyond the sea”. “It is not in heaven” – if it would be in heaven you would be obliged to go up after it. “It is not beyond the sea” – if it would be beyond the sea, you would be obliged to cross It in pursuit. (Eruvin 55a)

Rashi echoes the above dictum and his comment prompted his super commentator Mizrahi to pose the following question:

The text states the very opposite, that if the Torah was in heaven, no man could bring it down to teach it. You must conclude that the text does not mean that we would have to go up to heaven to get it, if the Torah was there.

The answer to this query is to be found in the wording of the text itself. It could have read simply: “It is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off: it is not in heaven nor beyond the sea.” This is sufficient to provide the contrast to the closing, determining phrase, “but the thing is very nigh unto thee …” The fact that it necessary to add the phrase: “That thou shouldst say, Who shall go up for us to heaven … that thou shouldst say, Who shall go over the sea and bring it …” indicates that if it was really so inaccessible, we would still be naturally obliged to go after it. The formulation of the question presumes its validity. The text thus lends itself to two divergent meanings:

That if the Torah would have been inaccessible – beyond the sea or in heaven. thy would have had the valid excuse to argue, Who shall go up to heaven, etc. Now that it was nigh unto thee, they had no further excuse.

That if the observance of this commandments involves going up to the heaven for enlightenment or beyond the sea, its importance is so great that we would be in duty bound to yearn to attain it, crying out, Who will go up to heaven or beyond the sea to bring it to us? How much more so since it is actually nigh unto us, is it our duty to embrace it and cleave unto it out of love, as a girdle cleaves to the loins of a man.” (Jeremiah 13:11) (Beer Yizhak)

Both interpretations read the question as a rhetorical one. The difference is that according to one reading the rhetorical question bears a negative inference (Isaiah 40:12 who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand (Jeremiah 16:20) “Shall a man make unto himself gods?) According to the other reading the rhetorical question bears a positive, beseeching connotation (See II Samuel 23:15) “Who will give me water to drink?) Though the first reading sound more plausible, yet the Beer Itzhak prefers the second reading:

The reader can see himself that the second interpretation is to be preferred Beside the consideration that the subject itself is so all important and rightly demands that we go to the ends of the earth in its service, the first reading bears the objection that it contains nothing new. Did not the Israelites know that the Torah was not in heaven? At most ,it was sufficient to state that it was not in heaven, nor beyond the sea. The additional questions support our contention and lend plausibility to the second reading.

Thus we have two aspects to our text. “It is in heaven” emphasizes the facility and feasibility of Torah affording therefore no excuse for neglect .It also implies the heavy responsibility devolving on the students and scholars of the Torah. Since it is not in heaven, man can no longer rely on heavenly guidance but must interpret it and teach it himself with his own resources.

The Torah is not the property of a privileged caste of priests and initiates. It is not in heaven but in our midst. It is the duty of all to study, teach and practice its tenets.