We read this short but powerful parasha’s words of caution and encouragement before Rosh Hashana. "For this commandment that I am commanding you today is not beyond your grasp, and it is not distant. It is not in the heaven, that one could say: ‘Who will go up to the heaven and take it for us and tell it to us, and we shall keep it?’ Nor is it across the sea ... for the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart to do it" (Devarim 30: 11-14). The commentaries explain that the commandment refers either to teshuva (repentance) or to Torah, in general, which, are both related as general ways of drawing closer to Hashem.
The Torah seems to be telling us that success in proper service of Hashem is very easy. It’s close; it’s accessible; it’s within us. So why have so many of us, personally, and all of us, nationally, failed to reach the level that the Torah demands of us?
The gemara (Eruvin 54a) brings R. Yitzchak’s explanation of the last pasuk we quoted. It’s not that it is close to us and also in our mouth and our heart, all indications that Torah observance is easy. Rather R. Yitzchak tells us that it is close to us only when it is in our mouth and our heart. In other words, we have to do our part in order for spiritual success to be close to us.
Actually, the Torah does not say that teshuva or Torah is easy. It says that we do not require anyone to go to a distant place to bring it. It is accessible, but it requires skill to access it. The Me’am Loez illustrates this point with a parable. A king built a large tower and commanded one of his subjects to climb to its top. However, he locked all of the tower’s entrances. A wise man told the distraught subject as follows. "If the king told you to climb the tower, he must have given you the tools to do so. Use your head to figure out how to do it." The subject noticed a long ladder near the tower, with which he climbed into the tower and succeeded in his task. Indeed everything was close, but without the right approach, the job seemed undoable.
The gemara says that the mouth in the last pasuk refers to speaking the words of Torah. "... to do it" indicates that it is discussing practical mitzvot that need to be fulfilled. The order of the approach to the task is notable. Before one gets to "in your heart," one first needs to go through the mouth. In the first section of Shema, discussing love of Hashem, the Torah starts with the heart. Indeed, one can motivate himself to love Hashem directly through the heart. However, to be inspired to follow Hashem’s commandments, continuous study is a prerequisite.
So, as we use these crucial days to get closer to Hashem, we should realize that Hashem and his Torah are close. But we still need to plan our entrance to His palace and to obtain special "glasses" to see that which is right under our noses.
May we all find the inner strength to succeed individually and collectively and merit a successful new year.