In Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe makes the famous pronouncement, “For this law which I command you this day…it is not in the heavens, such that you would say, ‘If only somebody would go to the heavens for us and bring it to us and teach it to us, we would then observe it’; and it is not across the sea, such that you would say: ‘If only somebody would cross the sea for us and bring it to us and teach it to us, we would then observe it’” (30:11-14).
Several commentators, including the Ramban and Seforno, interpret these verses as referring to the mitzva of repentance, which Moshe described at length in the previous section. After Moshe urged the people that they should repent after being punished for breaching their covenant with God, he now emphasizes that repentance and change is possible. Seforno adds that the people might think of repentance as impossible in the conditions of exile, when they are left without prophets, and when their dispersion results in communities without knowledgeable Torah scholars. Moshe assures them that repentance requires neither going to the heavens – access to prophecy – nor crossing the seas – to find great scholars – for it is well within the reach of every individual under any circumstance.
Others, however, understood these verses as referring to the Torah generally, and emphasizing that Torah observance is something we are capable of. According to this interpretation, Moshe is impressing upon the people that performing the mitzvot does not require impossible measures, such as climbing to the heavens or swimming across the sea.
Rabbi Yisroel Shapira of Grodzhisk, in Binat Yisrael, adds that these verses may also convey the message that Torah observance is not limited to grand achievements. Some might make the mistake in their pursuit of greatness of overlooking opportunities for relatively small and minor good deeds which so frequently present themselves. The Rebbe of Grodzhisk gives the example of a person who works hard to save money so he could make a significant charitable donation, and in his desire to save, he ignores the requests from destitute paupers for the small sums they desperately need to support themselves. A person’s noble ambition for outstanding achievement can sometimes blind him to the countless opportunities to perform small acts of goodness. And thus Moshe urges that we must not wait until we can “climb to the heavens” or “cross the sea” to fulfill mitzvot. Certainly, we must exert ourselves to the best of our ability and maximize our potential to the very fullest, trying to reach as high and far as we can in our achievements. But our lofty aspirations must not lead us to forget that, as the Torah here concludes, “for the matter is very close to you” – mitzva opportunities present themselves at all times and in countless different forms, and we always have at least some small, valuable mitzva we can perform. Even as we strive to reach the “heavens” and achieve lofty goals, we must remember the mitzvot that are “very close” to us, the small but precious opportunities that are always available.