In Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe assures Benei Yisrael that even if they are exiled from their homeland as punishment for breaching their covenant with God, they will be brought back to the Land of Israel if they repent: “You shall return unto the Lord your God and heed His voice… The Lord shall then return your exiles and have compassion on you, and shall again gather you from among all the nations to where the Lord your God had dispersed you” (30:2-3). Moshe promises the people that no matter how distant from Eretz Yisrael they might find themselves, God will bring them back: “If your exile is at the edge of the heavens, from there the Lord your God shall gather you…” (30:4).
Rav Menachem Bentzion Sacks, in his Menachem Tziyon (Yerach Ha-eitanim), notes that the Torah here uses the expression “bi-ktzei ha-shamayim” (“the edge of the heavens”) to refer to the remotest locations, as opposed to the term “ketzei ha-aretz” which we find elsewhere (such as in Parashat Ki-Tavo, 28:49). He boldly suggests that these two expressions refer, allegorically, to two different kinds of “remoteness,” of distance from the kind of life that the Torah expects us to live. “Ketzei ha-aretz” alludes to those who have strayed to the extremes of “the earth” – of worldliness, of overindulgence in physical enjoyment and material luxury, and have no connection to the lofty teachings, values and ideals of the Torah. But there are also those who have strayed to “ketzei ha-shamayim,” to the extremes of the “heavens,” to spirituality that is disconnected from the realities of the world within which the Torah is to be practiced. This extreme could lead people to neglect their basic physical and material needs, to try – in vain – to lead a spiritual lifestyle that ignores the realities of human life, and to look with contempt upon those who do not seek to lead such a lifestyle. Rav Sacks writes that as Moshe assures the people of the possibility of even the remotest exiles returning, he speaks specifically of those who have strayed to “ketzei ha-shamayim” – because their return is more difficult and unlikely than the return of those who have strayed to the opposite extreme. Those entrenched in misguided piety are convinced that their piety is authentic, making it exceedingly unlikely for them to return to the balanced, worldly existence that the Torah envisions and expects. And so Moshe emphasizes that God is willing and able to bring back even those who have strayed to “the edge of the heavens,” who reacted to the challenges of exile by trying to disconnect from the “earth” and live a purely “heavenly” existence which does not take into account the realities of human life.
Later, Moshe famously pronounces, “Lo ba-shamayim hi” – that the Torah “is not in the heavens” (30:12). The implications of this pronouncement are numerous and wide-ranging, but one is that the Torah is meant to be applied to, and take into account, the earthly, mundane realities of our world. One does not have to “ascend to the heavens” – disconnect himself from the realities of human life – in order to follow the Torah’s laws and values, and any such effort is, necessarily, doomed to fail.
The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (88b) depicts Moshe as having to confront and debate the heavenly angels at the time he ascended to the heavens to receive the Torah. The angels demanded that the sacred Torah must remain in the heavens, but Moshe pointed to the fact that the Torah’s laws address themselves to the human condition. The Torah forbids stealing because humans are naturally greedy; the Torah forbids adultery because humans experience sexual desire; the Torah requires observing Shabbat because humans must work to sustain themselves and need a day for physical and spiritual rejuvenation. The Torah is heavenly, but it is to applied to the complex realities of the earth. And thus just as we must avoid plummeting to the “ketzei ha-aretz,” to extreme preoccupation with the vain pleasures of the world, so must we be avoid soaring to “ketzei ha-shamayim,” to unrealistic extremes of piety, seeking in vain to free ourselves from the constraints of the human condition.