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This commandment that I command you today is not hidden from you, nor is it far away. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who amongst us can go up and bring it to us, that we may hear about it and perform it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who amongst us will go over the sea and bring it to us, that we may hear about it and perform it?” But it is very near to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may perform it (30:1-14).
The meaning of the above words ‘this commandment… that you may perform it’ is not clear. Rashi implies that ‘it’ is the whole Torah. Thus this passage declares that the Torah is accessible to everyone – here and now. Although the goal of knowing and fulfilling the Torah may appear to be beyond human attainment, it is not actually so. G-d’s expectations are within the reach of Man if he makes a sincere effort to achieve them.
The Ramban, however, follows context of the text, writing that ‘it’ specifically refers to the precept of teshuva – repentance. No community or person should ever feel so far gone that he cannot change his lifestyle to fulfill the will of the Creator. And the route for teshuva does need a trip to the heavens or a voyage over the sea: as Sforno states, people do not need to wait for prophets to being heavenly message before they repent.
The Rambam, in his Laws of Teshuva, states that process of teshuva contains three phases. They are: confessing the sin to G-d, regret, and leaving the sin - changing one’s behavior in the future. The Kli Yakar writes that the verse, ‘It is very near to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may perform it’ refers to this actual three-stage process of teshuva. For the first stage – confession – requires stating all the different sins committed. It comes under ‘it is in your mouth’. The second stage – regret – means experiencing a sincere feeling of being sorry for anything bad we may have done. It matches the phrase ‘in your heart’ – the Torah frequently using that word to denote the emotions. And the last, most difficult, stage is changing one’s behavior. The Rambam states that this step is only fulfilled when a person finds himself in exactly the same situation that he was in when he previously sinned, but this time refrained from sinning. That corresponds to the last phrase ‘to perform it’, because the person was indeed able to repeat the sin again, but this time he ‘performed it’ – the situation - differently and correctly.
However, though the mitzvah of teshuva may be ‘very near’, it is far from easy. Few acts in life are as difficult as making fundamental changes to one’s desires and passions. Indeed, R. Israel Salanter was said to remark that ‘it is easier to learn the entire Talmud by heart than to change a single personal character trait’. True, a person on once occasion might let slip a spicy piece of lashon hara – malicious gossip. And the second time – following an intense study of Shemirat Halashon – he or she might – only just - managed to hold the tongue. That person has reached the final stage of repentance. Or has he? He ‘left the sin’ on that occasion, but the deep desire to gossip will still form part of the personality. ‘Leaving the sin’ did not bring about any fundamental character change.
As a response to this problem it is possible to extend the Kli Yakar’s answer so that the words ‘It is very near to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may perform it’ not only include leaving the sin on one occasion, but ultimately for all time. The person who was once a habitual gossip will not only be able to ‘perform it’ on one solitary occasion, but he will leave that character trait behind forever. That is explained below.
Some people live in the past – as they progress in life, they carry its burdens, moving forwards and backwards along the same railway track, getting fainter and fainter. These find it virtually impossible to break undesirable habits.
There are others who live in the present – in the here and now. They forget yesterday, and suppose tomorrow will never come. They are often dictated by the exigencies and passions of the moment – and even if they confess and regret having gossiped previously, they are so absorbed with the present conversation that they have long forgotten the deep regret of the previous occasion.
Then there are those who live in the future. They do not stand where they are. They direct their service of G-d and His Creations on the basis of having to give full account of their deeds to the Almighty on entry to the World to Come. And, on a more mundane level, they change careers, activities, and develop interests compatible with the above. They constantly redefine the means they want to use to put their maximum into life. As Rav Kook puts it, ‘the yearning for all existence to be better, purer, more vigorous, and on a higher plane than it is,’ drives people to strive to self and communal improvement and refine their course of action.
Richard Bach, in his famous book ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ develops his parable of progress in life. The hero, Jonathan Seagull himself, started out in flying the low skies – with a bunch of seagulls who had no aspiration other to live from one meal to the next. But Jonathan wanted to really fly – so he left their depressing company – against their advice and forebodings - and found himself part of the higher and far more challenging fliers. They were seagulls who really lived for flying, and in doing so were so involved in what they were doing that they had no time to share the gossip and lackadaisical lifestyle of the flock down below. Their conversation was sparser, but meaningful, positive, and mutually uplifting. Gossip simply did not fit into that circle.
This gives us an insight into fundamentally – rather than temporarily – ‘leaving the sin’. To constructively remove the desire to transgress as previously, one must live in the future. A person must set himself positive goals – reviewing them regularly – and in so doing so will find himself entering and becoming part of circles with those much more refined and positive goals… and means of achieving them. Specifically if Reuven – a person who likes to be well up on ‘the latest’ - sets himself the ambition of covering the Talmud in seven years by learning ‘Daf Hayomi’ (the daily page of Talmud), followed up with perhaps ten minutes of ethics from ‘mussar’ works, he is likely to leave his former frivolities and sins by virtue of having to persist daily in a heavy, demanding, yet highly intellectually and spiritually satisfying lifestyle. He will find himself the company of similar lofty aspirers. And he will find himself feeling the need for his previous, negative activities, less and less.
This, then, is the meaning of the words, ‘It is very near to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may perform it’. The start to the journey to fundamental teshuva – that of positively changing one’s aspirations, surroundings, and social company is indeed very near. With so many positive opportunities from over the globe to change to more positive occupations and lifestyles – far more that in R. Israel Salanter’s time – that first step of changing for a better and more satisfying future is within our grasp so long as we set realistic targets which develop us as people and are pleasing to G-d and Man. And the Rabbis bring the tradition that a person who sets on such a journey will receive help from Heaven.
The following essay was written last year, in the wake of the Twin Towers disaster. It relates to both Parashat Vayeilech and Rosh Hashanah
G-d said to Moses: “…I will surely hide My face on that day because of all the evil that the (Israelites) did, because they turned to other gods.” (31:14,18)
Rashi (to Isaiah 8:17) states that this is the harshest of all prophecies. None of the ninety-eight specific curses mentioned in Moses’ warning to the Israelites compare with G-d’s actually concealing Himself from His people. As Rashi himself puts it, He acts as though He does not want to know of their troubles. This explanation implies that the comforting words of, “Yet though I walk in death’s dark valley, I shall fear no evil because You are with me,” (Psalms 23:4) will not offer any consolation when the curse of hiding His face is in effect. During that time, G-d will not give His direction – as Jeremiah was later to lament: “also the (Israelites’) Prophets did not get any communication from G-d.” (Lam. 2:9) In fact, this curse is softened only by the nearby verse which promises that, now matter what, the Torah will never be forgotten by the Israelites.
On Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, the entire world looked on as the most powerful civilization it ever knew was reduced to helplessness in the face of fatal hijackings, and the obliteration of the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon – the nerve centers of world economic and political power. A month before, it did the same thing – with considerably more disinterest – as a shaheed (suicide bomber) foully exterminated men, women, and children at the strictly kasher Sbarro’s restaurant in Jerusalem.
It is well known that in the past, many terrorists have been unsuccessful in causing fatalities (other than their own) in their murderous missions. Against all odds, a just-at-the-right-moment-suspicious airline stewardess prevents a young lady, inadvertently carrying a time bomb, from boarding the plane. Against all odds and without any tip-off, an attempt to obliterate a busy shopping mall is nipped in the bud by an alert security guard at the entrance. Against all odds, someone notices a lethal ‘ordinary-looking’ parcel placed in an inconspicuous corner. And against all odds and logic, a well-made nail-infested suicide bomb blows up and destroys the shaheed before he can reach his destination…
G-d had indeed ‘shown His face’ in the many, largely unpublished, occasions when such disasters had been averted: in such a way that one could not avoid seeing His intervention. G-d did not appear to ‘show His face’ at Sbarro’s. Nor did He at the much larger scale catastrophes in the United States. On both of those occasions, He seems to have ‘surely hidden His face.’
The problem is that the verse ‘I will surely hide My face on that day because of all the evil that they did, because they turned to other gods’, implies that this severest of all prophesies is only realized because of sin. It does not, by itself, explain why He hides from individuals who appear to live productive, faultless lives, and from people like those of the Hatzoloh (Torah-orientated voluntary first aid organization) of New York City during the Twin Towers Disaster. It does not reveal why outstanding individuals and communities perished in the Holocaust amidst great suffering. It does not offer comfort to the families of those obliterated by the Jordanians in the defense of Kibbutz Etzion in 1948. Neither does it explain Sbarro’s. Nor the victims of the fatal September 11th, in the United States.
At the outset, elsewhere, the Torah states that it is impossible to understand the workings of G-d.
The things that are hidden are for the L-rd our G-d (29:28).
No-one – however great, can understand Creator’s design for the Universe. Neither could Job, and G-d told him so. He lived an exemplary life, yet in the face of what would appear to the human mind as gross injustice, he complained to the Almighty about his suffering. G-d did not condemn Job for protesting, but He answered him:
Who is this who darkens My counsel without knowledge? …
Where were you when I founded the earth? …
Have you walked to the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? …
Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up (G-d’s) dominion over the earth? (Job 38)
G-d has stated that we, mere mortals cannot understand His workings. These are the ‘things that are hidden’. We do not know why thousands of victims perished that day. We do not know why G-d did not step in to foil the hijackers. However that does not mean that one cannot face what happened and learn from it. Indeed, one should: as implied in the latter part of the same verse:
but what is revealed is for ourselves and our children forever, to carry out the words of this Torah (29:28).
As the New Year enters, let look at the American Catastrophe in the face and ask: what does it teach us? The verse above implies that we cannot understand the spiritual reason for it, but the physical extent of disaster is, sadly, being revealed to us at this moment of writing. What can ‘we and our children forever’ learn from the American Catastrophe ‘to carry out the words of this Torah’?
The are many lessons, and this item will briefly look at just one: an economic aspect.
The United States increasingly set the tone of western civilization. It developed political democracy – equal rights to all citizens to vote and participate in the world’s most influential country, irrespective of color, religion, and wealth or lack of it. Within that setting, it produces an economic structure, supplying its citizens and the world beyond with goods and services of the highest quality and sophistication – and of a nature undreamed of a generation ago. Last – but not least – it provides a safety net of basic – very basic – services to their poor and incapacitated, as well as parting with large sums in foreign aid – and to the victims of natural disasters over the globe. Its people (certainly those I met on my visit there) are largely hard-working, progressive, ‘go-for-it’, warm, open, and generous. All these qualities appear to be laudable, and worthy of emulation.
However there is a darker side to the way that society works. Economically – represented by the Twin Towers – it tends towards short-term approaches to its participants. The market economy structure rewards instant success, but it can be at the expense of loyalty. It stresses fast achievement, but often at the cost of sincerity – or, through subtle advertising, through brainwashing the public to buy a product which does them no good, but keeps the gold rolling into the manufacturers’ coffers. Its atmosphere of cut-throat competition needed to stay in the existing market structure can – in extreme cases – fight against life itself. A sound, hard working employee with heavy family duties can suddenly find himself on the street for no reasons other than the management found some young star who might be a little more cost effective. Animals are tortured in cruel medical experiments to test products appealing to the vain and the nouveau-riche. And the greed goes on and on… the desire to progress and dominate an increasingly large part of the market often at the expense of the working masses. Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart, in ‘Return to Auschwitz’ (1981) put it this way:
I still see the features and routines of Auschwitz everywhere. Everyone I have met since the war slots in my mind into an Auschwitz setting. I know within a few minutes who they would have been and how they would have behaved, especially when the chips were down. There may not be the same undisguised physical brutality in our contemporary surroundings, but the pattern is the same: personal viciousness, greed for power, love and manipulation and humiliation. How do men get and hold the most coveted jobs in big firms? By starting as ‘trusties’ and trampling over others on the way to the top… In a concentration camp the conflict would be an immediate battle over one hunk of bread. In the office skyscraper it is on a longer-term basis: steady attrition, covered by a veneer of artificial politeness. Nobody gets physically beaten up, tortured or murdered, but often there is what you might call a slow campaign against life. This breed of killers prefers scheming in an atmosphere of polite treachery rather than speaking malice out loud. But the greed, malice and power lust are at the heart of it just the same.
This statement is very extreme – written by a woman who suffered and witnessed brutality far beyond the grasp of the normal mind. Her parallels between that and the business world do not apply to every firm and industry in the United States, or anywhere in the civilized world, for that matter.
But the unbridled free marketing present structure does appear to have a cancerous element from point of view of human values. It promotes and lauds shareholders and company directors making fast ‘megabucks’ – and paying insufficient attention to the employees’ backs broken in the process. In extreme cases, that can move towards the law of the jungle – seeing people just as numbers – to be hired and fired according to the exigencies of the company at that particular moment.
The way forward is not to destroy progress, but to work towards humanizing progress. That is a key lesson to be learnt from the disaster. Companies should cultivate other values consistent with spirit of the Seven Laws of the Descendents of Noah – on which humanity is based. It calls for many things, including sacrificing a little financial profit for human decency. For treating employees as individuals, not as numbers or as units of production. For recognizing that the firm has a personal responsibility towards the employee the moment he takes him or her on. For rewarding loyalty, sincerity, and tolerating the failures of people hired, offering them constructive help and criticism where needed, rather than the sack. For a fair internal arbitration system to resolve disputes between personnel. For rival firms to work together where possible, together diversifying their products and specializations instead of duplicating each other, making a little more profit in the short run, but almost invariably campaigning against life in the longer run… For firms with plantations and factories in the Developing World to trade off technology against labor – for them to hire (as far as economically practicable) more workers with a slightly lesser degree of capital investment…
For people to realize that however wealthy they are, they can only eat three meals a day and sleep in one room and in one bed at a time… And for firms to face their shareholders and present their conviction that the firm’s humanity, respectability, and good name will lead to the long run business success.
This will could well to an altogether more human and in the long run more profitable business world. That is a lesson we could learn from the collapse of the grand structures symbolizing the highest bastions of economic power.
Perhaps the Jews – the People of the Torah – not unblessed with economic success – could take the challenge of setting the example? One of the six things asked on entry to the Next World is whether he or she conducted their business life decently (Talmud: Shabbat 31a). In this respect, we would become a light to the powerful nations, who in turn will profoundly influence the world to a far more humane lifestyle.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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