Despite hearing a series of frightening curses that may befall one upon not following in the ways of Hashem, our parsha says that there may nevertheless be he who “will bless himself in his heart, saying, ‘peace will be with me even if I walk as my heart sees fit.’” How is such a phenomenon possible? The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on the words “he will bless himself in his heart” translates this to mean “he will give up hope in his heart.” Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains that this person gave up on himself and his abilities to follow through with God’s wishes, and instead turns to following in his own ways. (Seen in “Ohel Moshe,” Nitzavim).
One may find certain aspects of Torah too difficult and out of reach, and as a result give up on himself and them, believing he will be fine going in his own ways. The root of his mistake may be a lack of belief in his strengths and abilities.
In truth, the abilities and fortitude that Hashem endowed us with to carry out His Will is phenomenal—and theoretically can defy gravity and nature. Our parsha says “for this mitzvah [i.e Torah] that I command you today … it is not in heaven … Rather the matter is very near to you—in your mouth and your heart—to perform it.” On the words “it is not in heaven,” Rashi explains that this is coming to teach that if in theory the Torah was in heaven, “you would have to go up after it and to learn it.”
Would it be really expected of us to become astronauts to go learn Torah, and is it even possible to go to the high heavens even with all the sophistication we may have!? Rav Chaim Mintz (“Etz Hachaim,” Nitzavim) brings in the name of Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman who explained that nature is defined by the Torah’s standards. If the Torah dictates a mitzvah, that means that it’s instilled in nature to ensure its possibility. If the Torah says to do something, then it becomes possible to do it. Sure, at this moment it may seem totally impossible to reach the high heavens, but that’s because the Torah is not in heaven and therefore we’re not commanded to go up to heaven. But if in theory we would be commanded to go up to heaven to learn Torah, then it would be in our capabilities to do so!
Indeed, the Torah defines and clarifies our capabilities and tremendous potential. If it says to do something, it means we can do that something—even if, to us, it may seem beyond our reach. The mitzvot of the Torah inherently impart confidence in our abilities to carry out Hashem’s Will.
“Rather, the matter is very near to you—in your mouth and your heart—to perform it.” Torah is very close to us. What does this mean? The Meshech Chochma explains this pasuk with the following insight: When it comes to our physical needs, all that which are necessary for our survival are readily available (and the more necessary, the more available). Assuming the lack of man’s interference and tampering of nature, our basic physical needs are within arms reach. Likewise, for our spiritual needs, Hashem gave us that which is necessary for its achievement. Indeed, the pasuk says that “Hashem made man straight” and thus a person knows on his own what is proper and correct, as long as man doesn’t interfere with this by corrupting his ways. Hence, naturally, a person has the ability on his own to know that there is a Creator of the world. Bnei Yisrael, who are on a higher plateau than the typical person, are endowed with an even greater ability to reach the understanding of Hashem’s close supervision of creation itself and those whom He created. Moreover, once we received the Torah, it became etched and engrained in our hearts to love Hashem and His Torah, and we are therefore capable of doing so, and to designate our mouth and heart for Him. Hence the pasuk—it’s “very close to you—in your mouth and heart—to perform it.”
Indeed, spiritual growth is within arms reach—it’s accessible and doable. The tools necessary for its accomplishment are given to us much like our physical needs are readily available to us.
There’s an incident where Eliyahu Hanavi bumped into a man who began poking fun at him. Eliyahu asked him “what will you answer on the day of judgment since you didn’t learn Torah”? The man said that he has what to answer since after all he hasn’t been gifted with understanding for Torah knowledge. Eliyahu asked him, “what’s your occupation?” “I catch birds and fish,” he said. Eliyahu persisted, by asking him who gave him the understanding and ability to take flax and turn it into nets for trapping. The man said that he was given the ability to understand and know such things. Eliyahu then drove in his point: to make traps you were given the ability, but not for Torah? After all, it’s written “for the matter is very close to you—in your mouth and heart—to perform it.” The man began crying, and Eliyahu reassured him by saying that he’s not the only one, for all people have this excuse, and their actions disprove them (see Midrash Tanchuma, Vayelech, 2: and Tanna D’vei Eliyahu, Zuta, 14).
What did the man think, and what was Eliyahu Hanavi coming to reveal to him? Rav Elya Svei (“Ruach Eliyahu,” Nitzavim) explains, based on the aforementioned Meshech Chochma, that this man thought he wasn’t given the abilities to succeed in Torah, in spirituality. However, Eliyahu informed him that much like he was given the tools and abilities to succeed in regards to his physical needs, so too for Torah, for his spiritual needs. Since a person was created for ruchniyut, is there anything more necessary than success in this realm? If a person was given what he needs for his physical success, how much more so is he given the abilities to succeed in ruchniyut. It’s “very near to you…”
Eliyahu said “all people” have this excuse, which means, says Rav Svei, that in fact all people—each person on his own level—underestimates his abilities to reach greater heights in Torah and avodat Hashem.
Likewise, a person might find himself struggling in spiritual terms. He wants to improve, and tries and tries, but time after time fails to see the success. Yet, if the Torah says this is the right thing to do, a person can make it, even if it seems like he keeps falling. Indeed, the Torah’s dictates implicitly instill confidence in a person that he can in fact accomplish much, and become a greater person than he may think. If it’s God’s Will, then there’s a way.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.