We find in Parashat Nitzavim Moshe’s famous proclamation that the Torah is neither “in the heavens” nor “across the sea,” and is instead, “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart…” (30:12-14).  The simple interpretation of these verses is that Torah observance is accessible to one and all, and does not require superhuman strengths and capabilities.

The Gemara, however, in Masekhet Eiruvin (55a), offers a Midrashic interpretation, and understands the phrase “lo va-shamayim hi” (“it is not in the heavens”) to mean that Torah scholarship cannot be achieved by an arrogant person.  If somebody thinks that he is “in the heavens,” that he is greater and more important than other people, then he is incapable of acquiring and retaining Torah knowledge.  It is only the humble spirit which recognizes the need for hard work and sustained effort that can master the vast corpus of Torah scholarship.

We might wonder whether perhaps there is some connection between the simple reading of “lo va-shamayim hi,” and the Gemara’s Aggadic reading.  What association might there be between Moshe’s insistence that Torah observance is within our reach, and the Gemara’s warning about the effects of arrogance?

One possibility, perhaps, is that these two readings reflect two sides of the same coin.  Moshe warns about the stultifying effects of intimidation, that viewing the goal of spiritual excellence as beyond reach leads us to despair.  The Gemara, by contrast, warns of the opposite phenomenon, of complacency resulting from overconfidence and pride.  The simple reading of this phrase is that we must feel confident in our ability to meet the obligations God imposes upon us; according to the Aggadic reading, we are reminded that we must work and struggle to achieve excellence, and we must not delude ourselves into thinking we are already there.

There may also be another connection.  Sometimes, people overestimate their talents and achievements precisely because they feel that the Torah is “in the heavens” and cannot be observed without exceptional skills.  If we mistakenly view Torah as “in the heavens,” as an undertaking reserved for the elite, then we will either despair, or delude ourselves into thinking we belong to the elite.  If we think that Torah observance is exceedingly difficult, then we might then view ourselves as the kind of person whom we mistakenly feel one needs to be to meet the Torah’s lofty demands.  Together, these two readings of “lo va-shamayim hi” teach us that the Torah’s obligations apply to each and every one of us, according to each person’s capabilities.  It is “very close to you” because we are each expected to invest maximum effort and achieve to the best of our potential.  Once we internalize this truth about Torah, we will feel more comfortable acknowledging who we are and who we aren’t.  We will then assess ourselves honestly to determine what exactly we are capable of, recognizing that this is, in truth, all that God expects.

Originally posted on VBM

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