Torah and Teshuvah
The beautiful and famous words of this week’s parashah have always touched my heart. This year, I read the following passage with new lenses, as I immerse myself in the month of Elul and the spiritual preparations for teshuvah. The Torah teaches:
“Surely, this Instruction (Ha-Mitzvah Ha-Zot) which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deut. 30:11-14).
Most commentators understand this teaching as a reference to the observance of Torah as a whole. “This Instruction,” Ha-Mitzvah Ha-Zot, is the life of Torah and mitzvot. It is not beyond our reach. It is not merely for the elite scholars. It is not only for the most pious. But each and every one of us contains within ourselves the ability to embrace the Torah. As a Jew who became religiously observant in my young adulthood, these verses spoke powerfully to my own experience of learning how to incorporate traditional Judaism in my life.
However, as I reflect on this season of repentance, I am drawn to the other rabbinic understanding of this passage. Ramban (1194-1270) argues that these verses refer to the specific mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance. The passage opens with the words “This mitzvah which I command you today…”(Deut. 30:11). The previous ten verses describe the process of teshuvah, in which the exiled Israelite nation will return to God and be restored to its land. The root for the word teshuvah (“return”) is repeated seven times in these verses. Therefore, Ramban concludes that it is the very process of teshuvah which is the mitzvah “which I command you today.”
This perspective introduces a fascinating interpretation for the words of the Torah. Teshuvah itself is “not in the heavens…nor beyond the sea” but rather “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” As we approach the High Holidays, the daunting prospect of reviewing our past year, standing in judgment for our sins, and striving to overcome our shortcomings may overwhelm us. However, the process of returning to God is neither too lofty nor too deep. The Torah encourages us that teshuvah is very near to us, in our mouths, in our hearts, and in our actions. This teaching also reflects the rabbinic understanding of repentance. Maimonides teaches:
“What constitutes teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart never to commit them again…He must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart” (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2).
Therefore, teshuvah involves speech, heartfelt internal resolve, and renewed action — it is “in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deut. 30:14). We all possess the ability to verbalize our transgressions before God, to feel remorse over our past actions, and to strive for better deeds in the year ahead.
May we all embrace the path of teshuvah in the coming weeks. May we gain confidence in our power to return to God with our mouths, with our hearts and with our actions. God is very near to us, and God is waiting with unending patience and forgiveness.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.