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Bring It Home

By: Mrs. Bracha Krohn

In this week’s parsha we have a famous description of a mitzvah: “It is not in the Heavens…and not across the sea...rather it is close to you, in your mouth and in your heart…” (Avraham Fried has a beautiful tune for it!)

What mitzvah is the Torah describing? Rambam and Ramban disagree about what the “it” refers to.

Rambam says it refers to the overall mitzvah to study Torah.  The psukim in this parsha have been talking about learning Torah and leading a life based on mitzvot, and now the Torah says “you know, this is a reachable goal – you can do this!”

The Gemara (Eruvin 55a) explains that when the pasuk says “not in the Heavens,” it means that one who is haughty and arrogant cannot learn properly. The Gemara continues and explains that “not across the sea” means that Torah is not attainable if you spend too much time doing business and traveling the seas, selling merchandise (This is the Torah’s way of describing a business trip).

Ramban, however, disagrees and understands these psukim to be describing the specific mitzvah of Teshuva, which is the topic in the preceding psukim. The Torah just finished explaining that if/when we are in exile the only thing that will bring us home is teshuva. The psukim describe beautifully that a Jew will want to return to G-d and then Hashem will, immediately, meet him half-way and help guide him back into their relationship.

Ramban says that this mitzvah – doing teshuva – is not so hard to do. The Torah says it is not up in the sky or across the sea, i.e. it is not impossible.  It is close to your heart and to your mouth.

Why doesn’t Rambam read the psukim like that? Why not say that the phrase “this mitzvah” refers to the topic right before, to teshuva?

The answer lies in the reading of those preceding psukim: for Ramban, the Torah just described the mitzvah/process of teshuva and now refers to it and says it is reachable and doable. For Rambam, however, those psukim before were not about a mitzvah, they were telling us about a process that will happen in the future, i.e. when Jews return to G-d. The Torah writes us that “you will return” because we always do – then Hashem will always “take you back”!

This machloket then, is really about whether the Torah is commanding us to do teshuva or whether it is just telling us that we will. Can the Torah really command teshuva, anyway? Rambam thinks that Hashem cannot command/force someone to feel bad and to reunite with Him. Ramban is saying that he think G-d can tell us that we must repent.

When we look at the Sefer HaMitzvot of Rambam, we see that in Mitzvah #73, he writes that we must do confession. That, according to Rambam, is a mitzvah. If we do teshuva, then the way we do it is with verbal confession. According to Rambam, teshuva is not the mitzvah, but the confession is a mitzvah.

Rav Soloveitchik understands Rambam as meaning that we can only be commanded to do an action or to verbalize something. So Hashem “hopes and prays” that we do teshuva and we should! But the only command the Torah can say (according to Rambam) is “say these words” i.e. the confession. Hopefully with confession will come a genuine and beautiful teshuva, return to G-d.

Ramban clearly feels comfortable with the notion that G-d commands us to engage in the teshuva process, in which confession plays a major role.

What do you think? Do you feel like we can be commanded to repent and return or is that something we have to hope people will feel motivated to do? Are YOU doing teshuva this time of year because it’s the seasonal mitzvah or are you doing teshuva because you feel distanced from G-d and want to return? Would a mitzvah “return” make you want to do teshuva?

As the Yamim Noraim approach, may our teshuva be sincere and authentic, and may our commitment to Torah and mitzvot continue to grow and deepen us in a way that will leave us wanting more and always returning home if we lose our way.

Shabbat Shalom.









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