The Spiritual and the Physical
Summarized by Immanuel Mayer
Translated by Kaeren Fish
“For this commandment that I command you this day – it is not hidden from you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you might say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you might say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? For the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Devarim 30:11-13)
The commentators are divided as to what the phrase “this commandment” refers to here – the commandment of teshuva specifically, or the entire body of the commandments. Either way, the Torah describes it as something very close to us.
We might have thought that the commandment is found in heaven – so high that it is far beyond us. And if it is not in heaven, we might have thought that it is over the sea – in a place that is impossible to reach unless one has the proper training and equipment – which, in biblical times, would have been quite unusual.
Two different possibilities are set forth here – one in heaven, the other on earth. Both perceptions are erroneous, since the commandment is actually “very near” to us, “in our mouth and in our heart, that we may do it.”
Why would we think that this commandment is so far removed from us? Quite simply, because we are speaking of the Torah. “The Torah” and “the commandments” are spiritual concepts, in contrast to the physical, mortal man. One might have argued that this gap between the spiritual and the physical is so great that it cannot be bridged. Just as the body cannot rise up to heaven, so it cannot connect with Torah. However, human reality disproves this claim. Man, by his very being – by his composition of body and soul, material and spiritual existence in one and the same entity – proves that it is possible to exist in this way, and only in this way.
Let us look at an example of a commandment that is near to us, “in our mouth and in our heart.”
Moshe’s leadership and Yehoshua’s leadership
The beginning of parshat Vayelekh describes the transition from Moshe’s leadership to that of Yehoshua. First there is a transition in the context of the conquest of the land:
“The Lord your God, He will go over before you, and He will destroy these nations from before you, and you shall dispossess them; and Yehoshua – he shall go over before you, as the Lord has said. And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sichon and to Og, the kings of the Emori, and to their land, whom He destroyed, and the Lord shall deliver them up before your face, that you may do to them according to all the commandments which I have commanded you. Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them, for the Lord your God – it is He that goes with you; He will not fail you, nor forsake you.” (31:3-6)
However, the land is closely bound up with God’s Torah, and so Moshe also hands over the Torah. The parasha describes the handing over of the Torah to the kohanim, and also the commandment of hak’hel:
“And Moshe wrote this Torah, and delivered it to the kohanim, the sons of Levi, who bore the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moshe commanded them, saying: At the end of every seven years, in the time of the Shemitta year, during the festival of Sukkot; when all of Israel has come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all of Israel in their hearing.
Gather the people together – men, and women, and children, and your stranger who is within your gates – that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to perform all the words of this Torah; and that their children, who have not known anything, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land to which you are going over the Jordan, to possess it.” (31:9-13)
Thus, Moshe hands over leadership in both realms – the military and the religious, the earthly and the heavenly. At the same time, there is a description of the commandment of hak’hel. The entire nation gathers before God and hears the Torah read out by the king.
The commandment of hak’hel
What is the purpose of this gathering? The Gemara teaches:
“‘Gather the people together – men, and women, and children’ – If the men come in order to learn, and the women in order to hear [the reading], why do the children come? In order that those who bring them will be rewarded.” (Chagiga 3a)
We have here both an educational aim and an experiential aim, but it seems that the educational aim is secondary. It is difficult to imagine that the king, reading out the entire Sefer Devarim before the entire nation, will actually convey much knowledge to his listeners. However, from an experiential point of view, this is a unique occasion: the whole nation hears the king reading from the Torah, at the place chosen by God.
The Torah defines exactly when this commandment is to be fulfilled: “In the time of the Shemitta year, during the festival of Sukkot.” Why is this particular timing chosen?
In order to answer this question, let us consider for a moment the agricultural cycle that repeats itself twice in seven years: during the first two years of the Shemitta cycle the farmer brings ma’aser sheni; in the third year he brings ma’aser ani, and in the fourth year he performs the vidui ma’asrot. The same cycle is then repeated: in the fourth and fifth years ma’aser sheni is taken; in the sixth year – ma’aser ani; and in the seventh year there is vidui ma’asrot. Thus, the start of the eighth year is a new beginning, a new opportunity, and it is then that the hak’hel is held.
The reading of the Torah follows a similar cycle. The custom that was followed in Eretz Yisrael for many years was that a cycle of reading the entire Torah was completed once in three and a half years – i.e., twice in seven years. This cycle, almost identical to the agricultural one, points to a connection between the Torah and the land, between the spiritual and the physical.
The same connection finds expression in the only berakhot ordained in the Torah: the blessing over the Torah, and the blessing after meals, “for the good land which He has given you.”
The Gemara teaches:
“Rav Ada said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: Had Bnei Yisrael not sinned [in mourning over the report of the spies], they would have been given only the Five Books of the Torah and Sefer Yehoshua alone, for it sets forth the division of the Land of Israel.” (Nedarim 22b)
Seemingly, Sefer Yehoshua would have been given not in addition to the Five Books but rather as part of the whole, as a Sixth Book. The conquest of the Land of Israel was meant to be included as an integral part of the receiving of the Torah and all its laws. However, following the sin, the conquest and inheritance of the land became a separate issue, addressed in a separate Sefer.
The connection between the land and the Torah
The above division is not absolute. Even after there are Five Books of the Torah and a Book of Yehoshua, there is Torah in the land, and there is land in the Torah: spiritual within the physical, and physical within the spiritual. The land, in all its physical, tangible being, has some clearly spiritual aspects:
“For the land into which you go to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt, from whence you came out, where you would sow your seed and would water it with your foot, like a garden of vegetables. Rather, the land into which you go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and it drinks water of the rain of heaven; a land which the Lord your God cares for – the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” (Devarim 11:10-12)
In Egypt, food – bread – was dependent on the land. A farmer would water the land by means of his foot (which trod upon the land), like a vegetable garden. In Eretz Yisrael, even bread itself – the most physical manifestation we can imagine – is dependent on heaven, upon “the eyes of the Lord” which are “always upon it,” throughout the year.
We mentioned above the vidui ma’asrot, which is performed as part of a process that takes place twice within a seven-year period. After a person describes his observance of the commandments of the Torah pertaining to his produce, he comes back to the subject of the land and prays:
“Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people, Israel, and the land which You have given us, as You swore to our fathers – a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Devarim 26:15)
He prays for a blessing upon the nation and upon the land – the land which God promised to the forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. Here, too, observance of the commandments that the Torah sets forth concerning the land and its produce concludes with a prayer for the land.
Following this prayer, after the person has indeed fulfilled all that he is commanded to, the Torah adds:
“This day the Lord your God has commanded you do perform these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore observe and perform them with all your heart, and with all your soul. You have made the Lord this day to be your God, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes and His commandments and His judgments, and to obey His voice; and the Lord has made you this day to be a people for His own possession, as He has promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments” (ibid. 16-18)
Having been commanded, and after fulfilling the commandments of the Torah with all his heart and all his soul, man merits that impossible and inconceivable relationship with God: we make God our God, and He makes us His. All of this takes place after and in light of that connection between the spiritual and the physical, through observance of God’s commandments – including even the most earthly of them. The climax of this process is found in two words in the next verse:
“And to place you high above all nations which He has made, in praise and in name and in honor, and that you may be a holy people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken.” (ibid. 19)
A holy people – a people that connects the spiritual and the physical, body and soul, land and Torah. Such a nation merits to be a “holy nation.”
All of this is worthy of our close attention especially at this time of the Yamim Nora’im. It is a time when we are seeking our way, a time when we must be aware of the degree to these matters are truly “in our mouths and in our hearts”. It is a time to realize how the commandments that may appear so detached and far removed from us, so spiritual and lofty, are in fact part of us, in our mouths and in our hearts.
(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit on Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5771 .)