This is one of my earliest musings, written in 1997. I’ve shared it again a few times over the years, though the last time was in 2004. I’ve done little editing, updating, and adding thoughts (indicated by being in [brackets]) here and there, but it’s mostly the same (perhaps naïve) as it was 21 years ago.
כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹֽא־רְחֹקָה הִֽוא: יב לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַֽעֲלֶה־לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה: יג וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַֽעֲבָר־לָנוּ אֶל־עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה: יד כִּֽי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ
Lo bashamayim hi. It is not in the heavens, it is not beyond the sea. It is close to us.
However, it is not (necessarily) physical distance we are talking about. It is telling us that Torah is not beyond our intellectual reach – beyond our understanding. I think that is a very important point to remind ourselves about, for several reasons.
I know, for myself, that each time I delve into Torah, I can get more confused and baffled than I was before. This problem is exacerbated as I strive to wear my two hats– as a student of religion [as I was in 1997, and now, in 2015, as a full-time Jewish professional] and as a practicing, believing Jew. [Perhaps, in 1997, in my naiveté I could just leave that statement there. Today, I feel compelled to expand that statement with words to the effect of “whatever that means to me at any given moment in time.” In all honesty, my relationship with my faith and religious practice was no less complicated 21 years ago than it is today, or it was 40 years ago when I was an eager, yet confused college student. Am I a practicing, believing Jew? By the standards of some, I’m not. Even by my own standards, I sometimes wonder. I do know that my Judaism is precious enough to me to continue to compel me to work to insure a Jewish future through teaching, music, and any other area where I have been bestowed with the gifts to share my knowledge.]
When reading Torah, it is still a continual questioning: “What does this mean, what does that mean?” It can be awfully frustrating at times. Then I remind myself – yes, it may have layer upon layer of meaning, but we are told straight out that it is within our understanding. At each level we approach it, it’s meaning can become clear, but it may be very difficult to understand it at different levels all at one time. The meaning becomes clear within the context of our approach, our path to understanding. I wonder, sometimes, which comes first – our level of knowledge and then our understanding — or our understanding then determining our level? I have seen, heard, read, or experienced brilliant insights from those with little knowledge and expertise, and the most unenlightening and empty homiletics from the truly learned.
Sometimes, the text itself is my teacher in spite of myself. I can plug away at trying to understand the text, only to have an insight come to me that is totally alien to the paradigms with which I was viewing the text. The text itself took me to another level.
It is wise to remember that Torah is accessible for all of us – we do not have to wait for great scholars and mystics to impart its wisdom to it. (Nor should we blithely ignore the teachings and traditions of our past, our great scholars, even our not so great scholars.) [I hesitate to suggest that every single interpretation and understanding of Torah is worthy of consideration, but I also find my feeling that way utterly contemptible. Who am I to make such a determination? I try, I really do, to be open to all interpretations, and some of the best come from the most unlikely sources. I have learned, when I find an interpretation lacking, to ask myself to consider what I myself may be lacking. In reality, I don’t live up to this ideal as often as I’d like.]
However, it’s not about the interpreter. Torah imparts itself. If we do not study it for ourselves, we shall never have our own understanding of it-only someone else’s. [This has become a centerpiece of my answer to questions like “why learn Hebrew?” or “why read the Torah?” Yes, reading it in only in translation imposes a layer of interpretation, and I do believe reading it in the original enhances the possibilities of understanding. At the same time, the original Hebrew can also make the text more difficult to understand. Also, let’s face it. What we have is a text filtered through the particular lenses of the Masoretes. We have no access to the urtext, so, in reality, what we perceive as the original may in fact differ from the original and in so doing alter the meaning. It could simply be argued, well, this is the text we’ve got, so we might as well work from there. At times I find that acceptable, at others times I want to scream at the rabbis who usurped the power of interpretation for themselves with Talmudic screeds like the debate about the oven at Akhnai. Then again, I need to remind myself that the rabbis were only claiming what the Torah itself said “it is not in Heaven.” Still, that’s a pretty cheeky kiss-off to G”d! ]
Sometimes, analysis of the text as an academic interferes with the process, as I study the reflections of others. [Just see all the comments I’ve been adding to the original version of this musing!] At other times the study helps create fresh opportunities for Torah to speak to me on a new level and gain my own new understanding. [Ditto to my previous insert.]
It is also important that all of us remember, particularly in these trying times, that understanding of Torah is not the private secret of any one group of people-not just scholars, rabbis, kabbalists – that understanding is open to all Jews, be they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular, et al. For, as we are told at the very beginning of Nitzavim:
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם רָֽאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
“You are standing this day, ALL OF YOU, before the L”rd your G”d…” (Deut 29:9, JPS)
And that is including children, wives, and strangers dwelling among us. We are, all of us, party to the covenant to which our Torah attests. So, when later on the text says:
כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹֽא־רְחֹקָה הִֽוא
“Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” (Deut 30:11, JPS)
the YOU refers to all – men, women, children, strangers, and, by extension to present times Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, secular Jews, et al.
There is, however, a flip side to this good news. Because Torah is within our reach we have access to some parts of the text that challenge us. G”d tells us, quite plainly that the text is within our understanding, yet also asks us to do things which baffle us.
“Nothing baffling about that” an Orthodox friend once told me. “Just do what it says.”
“Not as easy as it sounds,” I reply. “My challenge is to come to understand that particular piece of text.”
“But you already understand it,” my friend says. “You just want to ignore it.”
“No,” I reply. “I’m waiting for the moment when the text speaks to me and raises me from my present level of understanding to the level on which it is imparting to me another meaning.”
This is what the Torah means about it being reachable to all of us. Coming to our own understanding, not someone else’s.
Ki karov eilecha. It is close to us. In OUR mouths, OUR hearts. But also in EACH of our mouths, EACH of our hearts. As individual as G”d made us.
May this Shabbat and the New Year offer you peace, rest, and a chance to let Torah startle you with new insights and fresh perspectives on old insights. May you be open to these insights no matter from where and from whom they come.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,
©2014 (portions ©1997, 2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5774 – Even Lola Doesn’t Always Get What She Wants
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5773 – Opening Our Own Hearts
Nitzavim 5772 – Where or When?
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 – Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 – Disconencting the Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 – Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 – Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760/67-L’eyd B’vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no musing.