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11 "Ki ha'mitzvah ha'zot" (For this mitzvah) that I command you today - it is not hidden from you and it is not distant.
12 It is not in heaven, so that you could say, "Who can go up to heaven and bring it for us, so that we can hear it and keep it?"
13 Nor is it across the sea, so that you could say, "Who will cross the sea and take it for us, so that we can hear it and keep it?"
14 Rather, the matter is very close to you - in your mouth and in your heart - so that you can keep it.

(Devarim, Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

What is "ha'mitzvah ha'zot" (this mitzvah)?
Which mitzvah exactly is the Torah referring to?

Various Commentaries differ about the meaning of "ha'mitzvah ha'zot."

TESHUVAH

Ramban and others interprets the words "ha'mitzvah ha'zot," as a reference only to the previous paragraph in the Torah, which refers to the specific mitzvah of Teshuvah (repentance) and returning to Hashem.

And the explanation of the verses:

It is not hidden, or difficult. It is not distant. One should not say, "It is months till Yom Kippur. I will wait to repent until then." Though the sacred nature of that day makes our Teshuvah more acceptable, Teshuvah can and must be performed throughout the year.

But rather it is "very close to us." Within our potential and capacity. Easy for each individual to carry out.

"In our mouths," so we can confess; "and in our hearts," so we can show regret over the past. Sforno adds: The heart recognizes where one has sinned and the mouth confesses it. Both recognition and confession of sin are prime ingredients of teshuvah.

"So that we can keep it," - and make a firm resolution for better behavior in the future.

DOWN TO EARTH

The Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) explains, "it is not in heaven" as follows:

After the Torah was given, it was no longer "in heaven." Hashem does not make Torah decisions in Heaven. Halachic (Torah law) decisions must be decided by human authorities following the guidelines given to Moshe at Har (Mt.) Sinai. It is Hashem's will that the Sages apply the laws of the Torah to the best of their human understanding. Decisions must reflect the opinion of the majority of a Bait Din (Jewish court), who are the final authority in all cases of Torah law.

The Talmud (ibid) brings this story to prove its point.

The Sages were debating whether or not a certain type of oven could become tamay (impure). The majority of the Sages ruled that it could. Rabbi Eliezer ben (son of) Horkenos held that it could not.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos, perhaps the most outstanding Sage of the generation, cited many proofs in favor of his position, but the Sages, who were the majority, would not accept these proofs.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos declared: "This carob tree will demonstrate that the Halachah (Torah law) follows my opinion."

A miracle occurred whereby the carob tree uprooted itself and replanted itself 100 cubits away. (some say, four hundred amot).

The Sages replied: "Halachah is not established on the basis of a carob tree.* "
[*Since Rabbi Eliezer was a very righteous man, the tree might have been uprooted at his command. This does not prove, though, that his ruling was correct.]

Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos declared: "This stream of water will demonstrate that the Halachah follows my opinion." The stream of water began to flow backwards against the current.

The Sages replied: "Halachah is not established on the basis of a stream."

Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos declared: "The walls of the Bait Hamidrash (House of Study) will demonstrate that the Halachah follows my opinion."

The walls of the Bait Hamidrash began to tremble and fall, and the Sages feared that any moment they would collapse.

Rabbi Yehoshua called out to the walls: "Why are you interfering in a Halachic debate among Sages?"

Immediately, out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua, the walls did not collapse, but out of deference to Rabbi Eliezer, they did not return to their original upright position either. They remained slanted.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos declared: "The heavens will attest that the Halachah follows my opinion."

A bat kol (heavenly divine voice) proclaimed: "Why do you contest Rabbi Eliezer? The halachah always follows Rabbi Eliezer's teachings."

Rabbi Yehoshua rose and declared:

"It is written: 'It is not in heaven." ' (Devarim ibid).

What is meant by; 'It is not in the heaven'? Rebbi Yirmiah said: It means that we don't listen to a bat kol in matters of Halachah, for the Torah was already given to man at Har Sinai.

Rabbi Yehoshua continued:

"We don't listen to the bat kol because You (Hashem) already wrote in the Torah at Har Sinai (Shmot, Exodus 23:2) 'According to the majority (the matter) shall be decided.'*
[*R' Yehoshua understood this to mean that Hashem would never interfere with the judicial process through which the law is decided. Accordingly he interpreted the Heavenly echo to be merely a test of whether the Sages would hold their ground. And the next story proved him correct.]

Later, one of the Sages, Rabbi Natan met Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the prophet). He asked him: "What did Hashem say during this argument?"

Eliyahu replied to him: "He was laughing and saying (with satisfaction), 'My sons won me in the discussion.' "*
[*The Heavenly Voice was meant as a test for the Sages, whether or not they would follow the majority opinion, as commanded by the Torah, and they passed the test.]

For the continuation of this story, click here.

LEARNING TORAH

The Talmud (Eruvin 55a) interprets the words, "…ha'mitzvah ha'zot" as a reference to the mitzvah of learning Torah.

The Torah is on Earth and not "in Heaven." The Torah is close and accessible to every Jew. Our Torah is not some doctrine that is hidden away in the upper recesses of heaven, available only to prophets and scholars. On the contrary, our Torah is readily available and not hidden. We cannot hide behind our ignorance. We all have equal access to the texts of the Torah.

When is Torah close to us? When we place it "in our mouth," meaning that we are constantly involved in its study, and "in our heart," as we attempt to refine our thoughts, with the intention "to keep it," to apply it within our daily lives (Eruvin 54a).

"In your mouth" - Torah study should be "in your mouth," spoken out loud and not read quietly. The Talmud (Ibid 54a) interprets the verse (Mishlei, Proverbs 4:22): "They (the words of Torah) are life to those who find them" as "They are life to those who express them out loud."

"Hashem does not come with especially difficult demands to his creations." (Talmud Avodah Zarah 3a) As long as we don't put a distance between ourselves and the Torah, it will always be within our grasp. Torah study does not require total spiritual refinement. Even the Torah's mystical secrets can become accessible to us if we apply ourselves.

In this context, Tana d'Vai Eliyahu relates that Eliyahu Hanavi once met an unlearned fisherman, who protested that he was never taught the fundamentals of Torah study and therefore, would not even attempt to learn Torah.

"Who taught you the fundamental principles of your trade?" Eliyahu asked him.

"Hashem granted me understanding," he replied.

"If Hashem granted you understanding in your trade, don't you think He would help you in Torah study? As it is written: 'It is not in the heavens."'

Perhaps an old story will help us better understand what the Torah is telling us when it says.

"It is not in heaven, so that you could say, 'Who can go up to heaven and bring it for us, so that we can hear it and keep it? '"

It is not in heaven, but even if it were, you would be expected to try and scale the heavens to study the Torah. (Talmud Eruvin 55a);

The tale is told about Reb Chaikel, a poor tailor from Lodz, who had the same recurring dreams. Each night his father would appear to him and tell him about a secret fortune. All Reb Chaikel had to do was travel to Vienna and go to the royal palace. Exactly fifty yards from the palace, his father said, was an old oak tree. Under that tree, his father told him, lies a great treasure. All Reb Chaikel had to do was dig under the tree, and all his financial problems would be solved.

At first, Reb Chaikel ignored the dreams, but they recurred night after night. And so, he decided to go to Vienna and seek his fortune.

He camped out near the palace and waited for an opportune time to begin digging for the fortune. At midnight on a moonless night, he stealthily crept up to the tree and began to dig. His shovel had not even had a chance to strike dirt when he felt a rough hand squeeze the back of his neck.

"Jew!" shouted the palace guard. "What on earth are you doing at midnight, fifty yards from the palace gates, shoveling dirt?"

Reb Chaikel had no choice but to tell the story of his dreams about the great fortune that lay beneath the oak tree that he was about to dig up. He even offered to split the booty if the guard would let him go.

"You idiot!" laughed the guard. "Everyone has dreams. In fact, I myself dreamed that if I were to go to the city of Lodz in Poland and dig in the basement of some Jewish tailor named Chaikel, I, too, would find a fortune! Hah! Now get lost!"

Legend has it that Reb Chaikel returned to Lodz and, after a little digging in the basement of his own home, became a very wealthy man.

Sometimes we look at the Torah's values and precepts and regard them as being way up in space, beyond our reach. We look at the Torah's expectations of us as impossible tasks that are as difficult to achieve as landing on the moon was. We view them as hurdles that are impossible to overcome, as if we were being asked to travel to distant lands to perform difficult tasks.

The Torah assures us twice that what it teaches us is within our reach. Even if a Jewish soul is lost in space, coming home to Judaism is always possible. And, we are told, the Torah, our manual of instruction, is more accessible than we may think.



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