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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Vayelech

On the Moral High Ground

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Toward the end of Nitzavim, the Torah turns to Bnei Yisrael with important encouragement: "For the mitzvah that I am commanding you today is not out of your grasp or distant. It is not in the heaven, to say, ‘Who will go up for us to the heaven to take it for us and tell us of it and we shall keep it?’ Nor is it across the sea, to say ... For the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart to do it" (Devarim 30:10-14). A few questions troubled our Rabbis. What mitzvah is being discussed? Why would we think it is distant? What does close mean in this context?

The Ramban and Seforno explain that the mitzvah is repentance. Most of the commentators take Chazal’s approach that it is referring to Torah and mitzvot in general. The midrash (Midrash Tehillim 119) picks up on the nuance of the words "lo nifleit hee mimcha" (literally, it is not out of grasp of you) and says that Moshe was saying that it is not objectively out of grasp and if it seems so, it is from you, meaning you did not toil over it. This midrash implies that when a person looks at the Torah as an external burden, it will appear distant. When one is willing to work on and connect to it, he will find that it is close, indeed within him.

The gemara has an interesting approach to the terms "in the heaven" and "across the sea." Rav says that Torah is not found in one who views himself above others or whose desires are spread out like the sea (Eruvin 55a). Good personal attributes such as humility and simplicity are conditions for accepting the Torah in such a way that it becomes part of a person’s lifestyle.

We will conclude with a difficult midrash on the words "lo nifleit he mimcha." It says that even if you need to have flesh cut off to allow you to learn Torah, you should have them take from you. The midrash says we do not actually do so, but how can it entertain such a possibility? The Radvaz (1052) rules that if a king says he will cut off one’s limb or kill someone else, he need not sacrifice his limb. His source is that the "ways of the Torah are the ways of pleasantness" (Proverbs 3:17), and it does not make sense that the Torah would require one to go blind or have a hand or leg cut off to save someone else.

This seems like a far-fetched occurrence nowadays, but the concept does arise frequently, for example, regarding donating a kidney, where there is little danger to the donor’s life, to save someone else. The Radvaz’s feeling, that his human moral intuition is an indication of what the Torah expects, provides another meaning for "it is not in the heaven." The Torah was given to people with their feet on the ground even as their heads strive for the sky. They are to apply the Torah in a manner that keeps it rational and "on the ground" even as it is lofty.

Let us pray that by keeping to this principle, we will merit to "find grace and good wisdom in the eyes of Hashem and man" (Proverbs 3:4), in the heaven and on the ground.

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