Nitzavim: Exhortation to Returning

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim

Sorry about getting this out so late- it’s that time of the year when
there are a few things which call for my attention. . . .

but putting out a weekly Torah commentary is not as hard as going up
to the heavens or crossing the seas, which brings us to a famous
passage in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim:

“. . For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in
that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and
keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of
the Teaching — once you return to the Lord your God with all your
heart and soul. Surely, this Instruction [literally, “this
commandment”] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling
for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you
should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us
and impart it to us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the
sea. . . ” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:9-13, JPS translation)

The verse above about “not in the heavens” has been quoted countless
times in countless sermons and drashot in order to encourage and
exhort- which is more or less its meaning in its Biblical context.
What’s interesting is how different commentators see the phrase “this
mitzvah which I command you today. . .” in verse 11. It’s translated
by JPS as “this teaching,” which means that JPS is following one of
two schools of thought about what the phrase means.

Given the entire passage above, some commentators see “this mitzvah
which I command you this day” as basically all the mitzvot; in other
words, the entire Torah is not in heaven, nor too hard or too esoteric
for you to do. Ramban and a few others see “this mitzvah” as being
specifically the mitzvah of t’shuvah, or repentance, based on the word
“return” [= t’shuvah or returning] in the verse before it. The Sefer
HaHinnuch, which lists all the mitzvot in every Torah portion, says
there are no specific commandments in Nitzavim, but as noted, Ramban
disagrees and says we’re being told that t’shuvah, or “returning,” is
the mitzvah that is not up in the heavens or across the oceans- that
is, t’shuvah is not an impossible challenge.

We’ve written about t’shuvah before, but just to refresh your
memories, the word means “returning,” which is a better translation
than the usual “repentance.” We all “get off track,” losing sight of
our ideals and falling short of the mark in various ways- imperfection
is a defining characteristic of being human! So our challenge- which,
according to this reading, is far from out of our reach- is to
remember our ideals, own up to our mistakes, apologize to others if we
have wronged them, and offer forgiveness if it is asked of us.

That’s the mitzvah of t’shuvah in a nutshell; it’s very simple, but
far from easy. This is why Ramban’s interpretation makes sense: not
only because the word “return” appears in verse 10, but also because
at this time of year, when we are asked to focus on t’shuvah in
preparation for the Days of Awe, it’s good to be reminded that we are
not alone in our tasks of fixing things. It may not be comfortable or
easy to ask for forgiveness, but neither is it “across the seas”- it
is something within our grasp, doable, an ordinary act with
extraordinary possibilities.

With best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and a Shana Tovah,

RNJL

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