Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 8 September 2018 / 28 Elul 5778

Parshat Netzavim

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Close to the Heart

Moshe Rabbeinu’s soliloquy nears its end. After exhorting the nation multiple times of the importance of their faithfulness to the Torah, and after setting forth how this commitment is the sole basis of its destiny and survival, Moshe then assures them that fulfillment will always be within reach:

For this commandment that I command you today is not beyond your understanding, nor is it far away. It is not in Heaven, that you could say: Who shall go up for us to Heaven and bring it to us, and make us understand it so that we may carry it out? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you could say: Who shall go for us to the other side of the sea and bring it to us, and make us understand it so that we may carry it out? For the Word is very near to you, to carry it out with your mouth and with your heart.

The Torah does not require minds and deeds of a supernatural quality, nor does its fulfillment depend on remote conditions. It is not in Heaven. All of the Divine revelations necessary for understanding and fulfilling the law have already been given to us, on earth. It does not require an individual or leader with superhuman spirit to penetrate the secrets of Heaven.

It is not beyond the sea. Fulfillment of Torah is not contingent upon circumstances and conditions that exist in some faraway land. It is not bound by climate, social or economic conditions. It does not require someone to cross the sea and study the conditions of the soil of Torah in its original region in order to understand its applicability elsewhere.

It is not that Torah is not only found in the Heavens, but also on earth. Torah is not in the Heavens. Once transmission of Torah was concluded by Moshe, there is nothing more to be divined. Only by scholarship, derived from text and tradition — and not by prophesy or revelation — can the law be understood and applied. Nothing of the Torah was left in the Heavens.

Rather, it is very near to you. In fact, it is closer than anything else, because you yourself are its subject, and your life on earth its content. To understand Torah, you need only delve into your own inner self and examine your human relationships. Anything else required for its application, to carry it out… has already been given to you…in your mouth, by tradition and oral transmission. As long as you engage your heart, the study of our tradition will enable you to acquire and fulfill the Torah. On this earth, and on this side of the sea. That heart, if full of such desirable traits as humility, dutifulness, and honesty, will surely be an able receptacle of Torah and guide for its application.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 30:11-14

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