Nitzavim: Closing Thoughts

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Yes You Can

The hour is late. That’s a double entendre – for it’s a couple of hours before the Holy Shabbos, the last one of the year and only a few more days [T-72] before year’s end. A few closing thoughts:

For this mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, – Nor is it overseas, [for you] to say – For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it. [Devarim, 30:11-14]

A poetic and moving description indeed! One technical question that the careful reader may wonder – what exactly is the subject of our text – for “this mitzvah” remains quite ambiguous.

Last year we pointed out that many (Ramban, Seforno, ibid) assume that our parsha [1] refers to the teshuva (repentance, return) imperative. For these commentators, teshuva is not merely a good idea; it’s the law. More precisely formulated, teshuva, for the sinner, becomes an obligation akin to other positive mitzvos. Failure to engage in teshuva might be equivalent to nullifying a positive mitzvah, much as one who neglects to lay tefillin for a day [2].

Working with their axiom, three quick reflections come to mind. (I apologize for the lack of adequate sourcing.)

First, note the poetry here – the triple couplets of the verse. Two in the negative and one in the positive.

This mitzvah is not

1. a. too mysterious nor b. too remote from you.

2 a. in heaven, nor b. is it overseas,

Rather it is extremely close, it is

3. a. in your mouth and b. in your heart/mind to fulfill it

Yes You Can!
One senses that the Torah is addressing the Jew who knows that it’s time to change but simply feels too overwhelmed to even start. Giving a rare pep talk, seeking to arouse desire and will, Hakadosh Baruch Hu in his beautiful Torah is k’viyachol as it were, rallying the Jew on : chanting YOU CAN DO IT! [YOU CAN DO IT ..] It is within your grasp. I’ll even help you. Rav Kook thus points out that a fundamental part of the teshuva process is the development of chesheik, of passion. With the desire for growth, it is so close.

Just Turn Around.
But isn’t that strange? If the Torah is addressing the overwhelmed and huddled masses, seeking to encourage by saying that it is not so far away – is that the same thing it is so very close? So the host is trying to get you to make the walk to his home and after a long-winded preamble (it’s not really that far, don’t worry – really, really!), he finally gets to tachlis and tells you he is your next door neighbor? How strange is the Torah’s formulation here!

A famous Chassidic answer reconciles the paradox. First a simple question (think for a moment).

On the perimeter of a circle, how many degrees separate degree # 1 from degree # 360 ? [for those geometry-challenged people YOU CAN DO IT!]

Got it?

If you answered 359 or 1 you are right – and wrong. It depends on one factor – your orientation. If you are oriented clockwise, then it is a long way home. If you simply turn around, then it is but one degree away. So is Teshuva far or near? Here the Torah offers a stunning insight. It is either very far away or so close. To the one lost in life’s traffic, moving with the crowd and traveling the “normal” unreflective path of life, it’s so far away. A classic piece of Talmud teaches that the next world was created with the letter yud and this world with a hey. [Menachos 29]

Read not be-hibare’am, when they were created, but be-hey bera’am, He created them with the hey; .. And why was this world created with the hey? — Because it is like a portico and whoever wishes to go astray [to leave the letter/world – from the bottom] may do so. And why is the [left] leg [of the hey] suspended? — To indicate that whoever repents is permitted to re-enter. And why should he not re-enter by the same [way as he went out – like a letter ches]? Such an opportunity would not be successful.

Teshuva begins with a reframing; the ability to look at real life situations from a completely different perspective. Commensurate to one’s ability to view his vulnerabilities, disappointments and flaws as platforms for growth will one be able to step higher move closer to Hashem.

Inner Greatness
Finally, The Torah reminds us that Teshuva is not in heaven, nor across the ocean – but if it would be, then we would still be obligated to grab it. The Torah only obligates what is achievable. (cf. reflections Ki Tetze of this year and the story of the yefas toar). If we believe that we cannot accomplish great things, then we are assured of mediocrity or perhaps God forbid, failure. Only one who can envisage the imperceptible, can accomplish the impossible.Thus the Ponevezher Rav, the great builder of Yeshivot and beyond, once remarked that a Jew must always dream – but he dare not fall asleep.

With great gratitude to all readers/supporters for a wonderful year. Let us grow together. I so much appreciate all the feedback. If someone out there is interested in helping with the technical stuff, I would love to share the comments and thoughts with our Reflections universe.

May Hashem grant us all a beautiful year of shalom for and within ourselves, our communities and klal yisrael.

B’vracha, Asher Brander

1. Cf. Rashi who understands the section to be referring to accepting all the mitzvot of Torah; Rambam [Talmud Torah, ; Netziv (in one approach) understands the section to be referring to teshuva m’eiahava

2. In reality, this is a matter of debate. From Rambam (Teshuva 1:1), it appears that it is the confession, not the act of return that constitutes the formal mitzvah of Teshuva (see Minchas Chinuch 364). Thus not returning would not violation a positive mitzvah.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.