The Coach's Pep Talk

  • Rav Jonathan Mishkin

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

Please pray for a refua sheleima forr

Uriel Shmuel ben Sara Itta.

PARASHAT NITZAVIMM

 

The Coach's Pep Talk

 

by Rav Jonathan Mishkin

 

 

            As we near the end of this year's reading of the Torah cycle, we approach once again the passing of Moses from this world.  Spiritual and political leader of the Jewish people for forty years, rabbi, teacher and guide through the deliverance, the revelation and numerous hardships and episodes of the desert, Moses' hand has shaped the formation of the young nation.  Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, knowing that his time has come, he reviews laws and messages, exhorting the Jews to obey the word of the Lord.  Moses' words are tough and unambiguous - material gains are promised for obedience, suffering is threatened for disregard of God's commands.

 

Behold!  I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods whom you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

 

            The formula seems so simple to Moses, the system of cause and effect so automatic and the choice so obvious.  From his speeches we get the feeling that while he understood the temptation to sin, Moses believed that a measure of will power was sufficient to do the right thing.  Now, in our parasha, the leader softens a bit, allowing himself a few moments of kindly encouragement.  Here are four verses which I have always found to be the most poetic and assuring in all the Torah:

 

Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may 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 get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?"  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

 

            It is nothing less than a pep talk!  Speaking to the people before their big game against the forces of sloth and indifference, or just plain temptation, the leader who has been over these plays time and again huddles them together - "You can do it!  You don't need anybody but yourselves; you know what to do and you're ready!  Now get out there and be the best darn nation this side of the Jordan!"  The point that seems to be rather vague, however, is - what are they supposed to do?  The paragraph begins with the Hebrew words - "KI HA-MITZVA HA-ZOT," "This instruction" or commandment is not beyond you, says Moses, without specifying what instruction or commandment he means.  Then he says: It is not in the heavens, or across the sea.  What exactly is it that is not in heaven but within reach?  Commentators have answered this question in several ways which we will now explore.

 

            The popular explanation for this paragraph explains it as a continuation of the first ten verses in the chapter which discuss the phenomenon of repentance.  The Torah states that if the people of Israel are at some point punished for their sins by being banished from their land, they will eventually see the error of their ways.  Israel will "return to the Lord your God, and you and your children will heed His command with all your heart and soul."  (30:2)  Following this, the Lord will accept the nation and return her to her former glory.  These ten verses are biblical support for the commandment for individuals to recognize, admit and turn from sins they have committed.  Our passage then is seen as a conclusion of this idea - REPENTANCE is not a difficult task, don't be afraid to undertake it.  But if this is indeed the subject of Moses' speech, his tone as I have presented it seems unwarranted.  It's easy to list other commandments required of the Jew which are more daunting.  How about respecting one's parents?  Not coveting?  Giving charity?  Cleaning house and avoiding leaven for a week?  Were the speech delivered to a later generation who had not witnessed the deliverance and revelation, we should surely argue that belief in God is one of the most difficult demands of the Torah!  Why does repentance require special encouragement?

 

            The usual answer is that it is extremely difficult for human beings to acknowledge that they were wrong.  The first step in repentance is obviously admitting error in thought or deed, dismissing the rationalizations and the justifications and confessing before God that one regrets one's behavior.  Isaac Watts writes in his 17th century Improvement of the Mind that "Every age, every sex, and each party of mankind are so fond of being in the right, that they know not how to renounce this unhappy prejudice, this vain love of victory."

 

            Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 2:1) states that a person knows that his repentance is complete when he finds himself in the same circumstances as he was once before and has an opportunity to commit the same transgression, but manages to refrain from doing something he'll later regret.  Rabbi Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshits (16th century) explains in his commentary KELI YAKAR, that nevertheless a person need not place himself in the path of temptation in order to test himself.  Moses' message was meant quite literally - repentance is not across the sea- you needn't travel great distances to revisit the scene of the crime.  And this is so because "the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart" - the mouth's confession and the heart's remorse are the true elements of penitence. 

 

            The KELI YAKAR adds that Moses might also be saying that sin does not create an unbridgeable gap between the Jew and his God.  An overture towards repentance is all it takes to bring God closer to man. "Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.  He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you." (30:3)  Moses is describing a permanent relationship between God and Israel.  Israel might think that its actions will sever ties with the Lord and that it is unrealistic and fantastic to think that return to God is possible.  Moses assures us that it is not so.

 

            I'd like to other a final suggestion here - Moses is subtly referring to the episode of the Golden Calf.  Following that sin of idolatry Moses tells the nation "You have been guilty of a great sin.  Now I will GO UP to the Lord; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin" (Exodus 32:30).  In contrast, Moses is here saying that the people need not believe that divine pardon is only granted via a mediator of Moses' stature, so that he is gone, absolution will be impossible.  No, says Moses - on the contrary, "It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can GO UP to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?'"

 

            We turn now to the second interpretation of our passage.  "Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach" refers to entire Torah, the full gamut of Judaism.  As Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak 11th century) writes "The thing is very close to you: The Torah was given to you in written form and orally."  This explanation of course is far more expansive than merely stating that a single commandment is within the average person's means.  Now we're saying that it's easy to be a Jew!  Anybody can do it!  We can readily understand why, according to this explanation, Moses felt the need to encourage his charges, but we might in fact ask - who does he think he's kidding?  Anybody who's even vaguely familiar with the demanding lifestyle of Judaism knows that it is a complex system of law regulating nearly every facet of human life from the most mundane activities like dressing and eating to sublime ritual events like prayer, sacrifice, holiday celebrations, with philosophical underpinnings throughout.  After 40 years of teaching Torah to the nation, can Moses really mean - "ahhh, there's nothin' to it!"

 

Let us return to the comments of the Keli Yakar.  He explains that Moses knew full well that the Torah mandates a total commitment to God's ways, but is here encouraging the people that God is not making unreasonable requests:

 

God did not command you to travel great distances to obtain materials for the mitzvot.  [For example] with respect to the sacrifices, the Rabbis present God's claim that 'I don't demand unnecessary strain or trouble in order to sacrifice animals which are hard to find, but ask you to offer those cattle and sheep which you have in your possession.'  From this issue we may extrapolate to all of the other commandments - God does not require that you collect materials from great distances in order to properly fulfill the mitzvot.  You are asked to use things that are available to you... and this is why the Torah says "Neither is it beyond the sea" - for I did not demand that you cross the ocean to gather supplies for my commandments.

 

            My favorite application of this idea is the Etrog.  In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon 12th century) explains the reasons for taking the four species on Sukkot:

 

It seems to me that [taking] the Four Species causes happiness upon [the Jews] leaving the desert which was "a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, not even water to drink" (Numbers 20:5) and [entering] a place of fruit bearing trees and rivers.  As a reminder of this we take the most beautiful of fruits [the etrog], most fragrant of plants [the myrtle], the most impressive of leaves [the lulav] and the heartiest of grasses [the aravot].  [One of the advantages of these species] is their widespread availability in the Land of Israel- everyone could easily obtain them.

 

            In contrast to this are the stories of Jews in Europe, far from the Mediterranean locals of the Torah, struggling to get hold of a single Etrog for use by the entire community - the Torah might just as well have asked them to take a kiwi fruit.  There is a fascinating episode reported by Rabbi Israel Isserlein of 15th century Germany about a cluster of towns whose Jews found that amongst them they had only one etrog.  Since it would have been impossible to transfer the fruit from village to village on the holiday (when travel is generally forbidden) their solution was to cut the etrog into pieces and circulate them throughout the region.  Some of the sections were naturally dried and shriveled by the time they reached their destinations, but the Jews recited the blessings over them anyway - an action of which Rabbi Isserlein disapproved.  [Terumat HaDeshen II, 52]  More recently, I remember as a child, participating in my grandparents' basement "Four Species Business" where they sold etrogim and lulavim imported from Israel.  Presumably, Canada did not have a large enough etrog market to sustain such an industry.

 

            My point is that the Torah legislates commandments that are accessible to its adherents and that the system was intended for application in the Land of Israel.  Some agricultural laws are only relevant when the plants are grown in the land where the Torah intended the Jewish people to live.  Perhaps this idea is related to the belief that performance of mitzvot in Israel is on a higher level than identical observance in the Diaspora due to the spirituality of the holy land.  Some philosophers claim that, in principle, the mitzvot are obligatory only in Israel, but must be observed outside Israel so that they not be forgotten (Ramban to Leviticus 18:25 discusses this at length).  One might argue that if God wanted Torah observance to be possible and accessible to all, flexibility should allow Jews who find themselves in difficult situations, to substitute, for example, a different beautiful fruit for the unavailable etrog.  This is a bit of a sticky issue that relates on a broad scale to change and development in halakha, a topic far beyond the scope of this essay.  But it should be recognized that the argument for modification can be applied to any area of Jewish law.  A Jew hired by a business requiring six day work-weeks might request that his Sabbath be shifted to another day - since after all, God wants his followers to feel that Torah observance is not unreasonable.  Clearly, such an alteration is unacceptable.  This is not to say that halakha never takes unusual circumstances into account or that it doesn't allow for exceptions to rules.  But the overall system, like any code of law, must be bound to firm and immutable tenets.

 

            In conclusion I would like to draw a connection between this understanding of Moses' speech and a guiding principle of the Rabbis.  There is a rule in the Talmud which states that no decree (GEZERA) may be imposed unless the majority of the Jewish people can follow it.  Legislators mulling over a bill must investigate whether the public will be able to conform to and accept the enactment they are considering.  The gemara in Bava Batra 60b records, for example, that following the second destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a large number of Jews had undertaken never again to eat meat nor drink wine as doing so would lessen their depression.  Rabbi Yehoshua spoke to these ascetics trying to comfort them but also trying to encourage them to give up their vow.  After admitting that some symbols of mourning should be adopted, Rabbi Yehoshua argued that overdoing it eventually would be an unbearable hardship for the people.  And the Jewish people have to live in this world within their human limitations - because of that, the Torah is not in the heavens.