In Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe makes the famous pronouncement, “Lo va-shamayim hi” – that the Torah “is not in the heavens” (30:12). As he proceeds to explain, one might have thought that the Torah is relevant and practical only if somebody were able to ascend to the heavens to find out for us how it can be studied and observed. But in truth, Moshe insists, “the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart, to observe” (30:14).
Rashi, commenting on the words “it is not in the heavens,” cites the Gemara’s remark in Masekhet Eiruvin (55a), “For were it to be in the heavens, you would have to ascend to it to study it.” What might be the Gemara’s intent in conveying this theoretical lesson, which will never need to be put into practice?
The simplest explanation, perhaps, is that the Gemara seeks to impress upon us the inherently binding nature of Torah, that our obligation towards it is unconditional. Although it will never happen that we would need to ascend to the heavens to study Torah or obey its laws, we are to feel unconditionally and unlimitedly bound to the Torah’s authority that in theory, were this to be necessary, we would have no choice but to ascend to the heavens.
Additionally, however, the Gemara might be directing our attention to the opposite side of the coin, so-to-speak, to those occasions when the Torah might indeed appear to be “in the heavens.” Certainly, as Moshe teaches, the Torah is not and will never be “in the heavens,” beyond our reach. It is practical and directly relevant to each and every one of us at all times. However, there are times when we might feel as though it is in the heavens. The Torah’s obligations are challenging and demanding, requiring a great deal of self-discipline, self-restraint, hard work, and personal sacrifice – and this is precisely why Moshe needed to impress upon us that we are capable of meeting these demanding obligations. However, the Gemara perhaps speaks here of the not-at-all-hypothetical situation when we feel that the Torah is beyond our reach. There will be time when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the Torah’s demands, when we simply feel that they are too difficult to us. The Gemara teaches us that when this happens, we need to start climbing, one step at a time. Rather than absolve ourselves, we should instead do what we can. Even if we are certain that the Torah is “in the heavens,” we have to try. We simply need to reach as high as we can. At those times when the Torah appears beyond our reach, we have to take a step towards it.
Moshe tells us that the Torah “is not in the heavens,” but the Gemara acknowledges the reality that sometimes it might, in some sense, appear to be “in the heavens.” And the Gemara urges us at those times not to give up, to reach higher, to always inch closer to “the heavens” even if we are certain we can never get there.