For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. (Devarim 30: 11-14)
This is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic paragraphs in the entire Torah. It evokes images of messengers going to heaven, or across the seas, on some quest for an elusive mitzvah. This mitzvah, which G-d commands us to do everyday, is in fact a very difficult one to pin down. Plenty of commentators have tried to do just this – some identify it as repentance (teshuvah), others the studying of Torah itself.
I think the most common understanding is that the word “commandment” actually refers to the Torah itself. It is the Torah that is near to us, that is ultimately an egalitarian, democratic document: But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it means that the Torah is accessible to each and every one of us, and merely saying the words of the Torah allows us to internalize it, and then act accordingly.
One can take this further, in a profoundly anti-establishment direction. The Torah does not require us to have some great leader or Rabbi who goes off on a quest to heaven or across the world, and then returns to us so that we may hear it and do it. Not at all! The Torah connects to every soul, and we all can access it in one form or another.
While I think the democratic angle is correct, there is a problem with the above. The Torah does not tell us For this Torah which I give you this day – it says For this commandment which I command you this day. Words have meanings. We cannot wish away the clear meaning of the text just because it does not fit our expectations. This paragraph is indeed democratic, but it is not talking of repentance, nor of Torah study, nor even the Torah itself. The mitzvah is unnamed because we are not all the same – we are, each of us, unique individuals. And so our “special” commandment is unique to us. We each have our own mission in life; no two people are meant to live the same life, to make the same choices.
And that is why the paragraph is written entirely in the singular. G-d is talking to each of us as individuals – this is a message to us. And so the mitzvah is in your mouth and in your heart, not in your mouths and in your hearts.
So let’s bring it full circle. This paragraph, in a few words, is telling us that our relationship to G-d is unique, and that we must not rely on intermediaries who come back and tell us what to hear and what to do. Instead, we must realize that our special mitzvah, perhaps even our destiny, is something that we can start to discover just by giving voice to it. Then we commit to that mitzvah and do it.
The Torah is never vague by accident. This paragraph is as specific as it possibly can be: it tells us that we, as individuals, are commanded every day to do a certain mitzvah, and that the knowing and the doing are both things that we can – and must – discover by ourselves. This is really an astonishing, and highly anti-authoritarian idea. It calls on the imagination of the individual to discover his or her own special mission in life.
Imagination is, of course, the limiting factor. We tend to speak of imagination as this great force for freedom, for dreams and limitless horizons. But this stands reality on its head, because our limited imaginations are in fact our greatest weaknesses. Danny Gershenson once explained that the reason there were so many composers in Mozart’s day is because every parent within a certain social milieu expected their children to become composers! Today, nobody dreams that their child will emulate great classical composers, and so it is no surprise that our society, for all its diversity and numbers, produces none.
The same thing is true for any schoolchild. No sane person really thinks they can do anything that anyone else can do – we all have intellectual and emotional limits, and we are all-too aware of them. This kind of self-awareness can be crippling.
Think of Moshe himself. When G-d first talks to him, at the burning bush, Moshe is told that he will go and talk to Pharoah. Moshe demurs – he says he has a speech impediment, and so cannot have a speaking role. G-d insists that Moshe can do it, but Moshe stands his ground, facing G-d’s wrath. The lesson is simple: if we don’t think we can do something, we cannot do it. Even when G-d Almighty insists, in direct and open speech even to the very best of us, that we can – we don’t believe it.
And that is why our imaginations are so crippling. Once we don’t think of ourselves as having a certain skill, we are virtually incapable of achieving that skill. And the same thing is true in our relationship to G-d and other people. If we do not think of ourselves as being uniquely special, as having a role in this world that nobody else can fill, then we indeed become nothing more than another drone.
Prayer provides a good example of this. A few weeks back I wrote about listening to G-d when we pray. The most consistent feedback I received from that piece was that I could not be serious – who hears G-d when they daven?! There must be some kind of clever joke here.
For my part, I was equally astonished. I had no idea that people davenned without hearing G-d! It did not occur to me that in order to hear G-d, we first have to believe that it is possible. We have to believe that having that kind of relationship does not require an intermediary, that the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.