Deuteronomy Not in Heaven: Neutrality or Responsibility
(Nitzavim/Vayalekh, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20, 31:1-30)
Like all too many, I had an ambivalent relationship with my childhood Hebrew School. As a young child, I enjoyed it. I loved learning to read Hebrew, to chant the Shema, and to tell the Torah’s stories. But as I got older, I started to rebel against my four-day-a-week school. Much as I loved playing the ballgame gaga during break and relished sneaking in candy from the store across the street, I distanced myself from the actual in-class learning. Nevertheless, the words of one teacher — I don’t even remember his name — have stayed with me. This teacher was deeply involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, traveling to Soviet Russia to meet with refuseniks and bring them Jewish ritual objects. One day he told us, “Neutrality equals complicity.” I took that simple message to heart: silence in the face of injustice furthers that injustice; working against injustice demands speech and action. I would not then have been able to translate my teacher’s words into the language of the Torah. But many years later, I know that the Torah also goads me to pay attention and to choose to move beyond silence.
With its proclamation that the Torah is not in heaven, this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelekh, locates responsibility firmly in our hands:
It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” And it is not beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will journey across the sea and take it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Because the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)
In contrast to the book of Exodus where Moses alone receives the Torah in the midst of lightening and thunder on top of Mount Sinai, the Deuteronomic vision imagines a Torah available to all, found not in any metaphysical realm or after arduous physical journey but instead inside each person’s very self. As Moses speaks to the people, he transfers responsibility for transmitting and observing Torah from his own person to the entire community.
Two rabbinic sages, Rava and Rabbi Yohanan, read these Deuteronomic verses as teaching not only about individual responsibility but also about the personal characteristics necessary to successfully acquire and transmit Torah. “Rava said: It is not in the heavens — it will not be found in a person who raises his mind over it like the heavens. Nor will it be found in someone who extends his mind over it like the sea. Rabbi Yohanan said: It is not in the heavens — it will not be found in the haughty” (B. Eruvin 55a). For Rava and Rabbi Yohanan, Torah requires the characteristic of humility above all. We cannot acquire Torah if we think we already know everything. Responsibility requires an ability to admit what we do not know. In that space of not knowing, we find Torah.
Yet, what is this Torah that we each can potentially find? The parshah contains a repeating dualism: God sets before us blessing and curse, life and good, death and evil (Deuteronomy 30:1, 15, 19). In other words, although the Torah commands us to choose life, the Torah is not inevitably a life-giving document. It contains within it curse and evil as much as it contains life and good. A rabbinic teaching recognizes this in its declaration that the Torah can be both a potion of life (sam ha-hayyim) and a potion of death (sam ha-mavet) (B. Yoma 72b). When Moses tells us that the Torah is close to us, he also gives us a choice — to take the Torah and to read it as a curse or to read it as life-affirming.
My Hebrew school teacher from many years ago tried to give us a similar message: how we act is a choice. We can be neutral and through our silences support things we consider wrong. Or we can act. We can remember that action is not something that other people will do for us; it is not in the heavens or across the sea. With humility and openness to recognizing what we do not know, we can choose blessing and good.
Rabbi Jane Kanarek, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Associate Dean for Academic Development and Advising at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA. Meet Rabbi Kanarek at Hebrew College’s Open House & Day of Learning (Ta Sh’ma) for prospective rabbinical, rav-hazzan and cantorial students on November 6. Learn more and register.