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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 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.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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