Torah Within Reach, Part 1: Torah and Teshuvah
Parashat Nitzavim falls in the thick of the season of teshuvah (repentance) in the Jewish calendar. This is no coincidence—it is the primary source in the Torah for the concept of teshuvah. Although we will sin and face the consequences of our failures, Parashat Nitzavim teaches that we can find our way back to a life of blessing.
We learn from the Torah that error is hardwired into humanity.1 But unlike an “original sin” model where humanity is unredeemable on its own, we have the gift of Torah as a pathway towards a life of teshuvah. Teshuvah is no mere “Plan B”—it’s the ideal. A life of Torah involves an ongoing cycle of discovering our blindspots and trying harder, only to learn of new blindspots. Although God may feel far far away, our access to Torah as a vehicle for teshuvah is immediate and ever present.
In one of its more famous and more poetic passages, Parashat Nitzavim teaches us what is within our reach, and not in heaven:
כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם--לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא: לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא: לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד: בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.
Devarim 30: 11-14
Surely, this Instruction 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, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
What exactly is “this instruction,” the “it” that is not in heaven but within our reach? The Talmud teaches that this refers to the Torah as a whole. One story that has received wide attention in the post-modern era deploys the idea that “Torah is not in heaven” to buttress human agency, possibly even beyond divine authority, to interpret the meaning of Torah.2 “It is not in heaven” becomes a rallying cry for confidence in human interpretive power.
But “this” mitzvah, and the “it” that is not in heaven is somewhat ambiguous. How do we know it refers to Torah as a whole? The local context of these verses seems to indicate that “this mitzvah” is actually a reference to teshuvah, which is introduced immediately prior:
וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד-יְקוָק אֱלֹקיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם: אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ:
and you return to your Lord, God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul.
R. Moshe Alshikh (16th century) connects these two adjacent passages and explains that the Torah is telling us that doing teshuvah is the thing that is “not in heaven”:
R. Alshikh Devarim 30:12
ועל פי דרך זה יהיה מאמרם ז"ל שאומרים כי המצוה הזאת על התורה הנזכרת ידבר. אך לבל יתפרש אומרו המצוה רק על מצוה פרטית, יתכן כי על התשובה הנזכרת למעלה ידבר.
Our sages said that “this mitzvah” refers to Torah…However, this does not explain the fact that “the mitzvah” is about one specific mitzvah. It would make sense that it is speaking of teshuvah, mentioned just above.
This is important for us to hear because, although the concept of teshuvah is beautiful, it’s also true that confronting our missteps and our blindspots can be daunting. Once we have strayed far from our hopes and ideals, how are we supposed to overcome inertia and redirect ourselves towards God? Teshuvah may very easily feel beyond us. Nitzavim speaks to exactly this concern by reassuring us that the “mitzvah” of teshuvah is not beyond us; it is within our reach.3 Suddenly, this passage that is so often deployed to instill confidence in human interpretation of a Torah no longer in heaven instead becomes an insistence on the possibility and necessity to be in the humbling posture of improving our ways.4
Yet, R. Alshikh does not entirely abandon the classical rabbinic reading of these verses. Torah remains a critical part of this picture of teshuvah that is within reach:
אלא שמדבריהם נקח כי פסוק כי תשמע כו' על התורה ידבר, שעל ידה תמשך התשובה כמדובר…שעל ידי לימוד התורה בבית המדרש יכנע היצר הרע ותבא התשובה.
But we will take from [the sages’] words that “When you listen” refers to the Torah, for teshuvah is drawn out through it [Torah study]...Through learning in the beit midrash, one’s evil inclination is subdued and teshuvah comes.
R. Alshikh brings us to a hybrid interpretation of what exactly is within our reach - a combination of teshuvah and Torah. Learning Torah is what makes teshuvah within reach, because Torah “tames” the evil inclination - the habits and inertia that have developed within us that make it feel impossible to change. We might have thought that as mere mortals we need some kind of external divine force to defy the evil inclination. The verse teaches that we don’t need any of that - the power of teshuvah is within us, in our own hearts and mouths. When we direct our passion and energies toward Torah, it functions as the “intermediary” that allows us to transcend our stuckness and break destructive patterns, and this paves the way towards teshuvah.5
Torah and teshuvah are intertwined. Every act of teshuvah is rooted in Torah, and every act of learning Torah must be embedded in teshuvah. There is no such thing as a magical moment of teshuvah that did not require some real, hard learning. And, in turn, true Torah study is deeply invested in how it will ultimately bring us a bit further from the destructive forces let loose by our failures, and closer to relationship with God and the vibrancy and integrity of life.
The hassidic teacher known as the Sefat Emet (R. Yehuda Leib Alter) offers an image of this interconnectedness between Torah and teshuvah, where learning both stems from and fuels our ongoing character development:
שפת אמת משפטים תרל"ז
פירוש שקודם שזוכין לתורה צריכין לתקן עצמו עפ"י מדה"ד לתקן כל פרטי המעשים. אח"כ זוכין לתורה שהיא מדה"ר. כמ"ש בפרשה הקודמת בענין לקחת מתנות כו'. אמנם כן גם אחר שזוכין לתורה צריכין לדקדק ביותר שלא לבוא ח"ו לידי גבהות ע"י התורה. וצריכין לשוב בתשובה ע"י התורה שידע האדם ויבוש בעצמו איך הקדוש ברוך הוא היטיב עמו וזכהו לתורה. ומזה יפול עליו בושה וישוב בתשובה ועי"ז התורה מתקיימת אצלו.
Sefat Emet Mishpatim 1877
… before we merit Torah, we must prepare ourselves according to the attribute of judgment, to repair all of our deeds. After that, we merit Torah which is the attribute of mercy…after we merit Torah we must be very careful not to come to any haughtiness, God forbid, through the Torah. We must do teshuvah through the Torah - a person should realize and be embarrassed by the fact of God being gracious to them and allowing them to merit Torah. From this they will be struck by embarrassment and do teshuvah, and through this Torah will be fulfilled by them.
Every act of Torah study requires us to prepare ourselves first—to work on our character and behavior to the best of our ability. We then merit the “revelation” of Torah study, as our learning yields a glimpse of divine truth that we didn’t know before. This insight is powerful, and intimate, and leads to a sense of “embarrassment” as we come into new realization about what we hadn’t known and never put into practice. So, immediately, we set to work again on our character and behavior, in light of this revelation. Learning Torah allows us to feel embarrassed by our shortcomings in a way that does not bring despair but is a catalyst to motivate us towards the next steps in our lifelong work of teshuvah. Through this iterative learning process, there is a continual growth and unfolding of Torah, self, and our relationship with God.
This ongoing work of teshuvah need not be demoralizing - it can and must be joyful - because it is the essence of our lives day in, day out. The book of Nehemiah shares an anecdote in which the people coming back to Jerusalem in Second Temple times rediscovered a Torah scroll and came to learn of many things they did not know, including the existence of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. They weep at their ignorance. They must have been so embarrassed. But their leaders tell them not to feel despondent, but uplifted in this moment:
וַיֹּאמֶר נְחֶמְיָה הוּא הַתִּרְשָׁתָא וְעֶזְרָא הַכֹּהֵן הַסֹּפֵר וְהַלְוִיִּם הַמְּבִינִים אֶת-הָעָם לְכָל-הָעָם, הַיּוֹם קָדֹשׁ-הוּא לַיהוָה אֱלֹקיכֶם--אַל-תִּתְאַבְּלוּ, וְאַל-תִּבְכּוּ: כִּי בוֹכִים כָּל-הָעָם, כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה. וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לְכוּ אִכְלוּ מַשְׁמַנִּים וּשְׁתוּ מַמְתַקִּים, וְשִׁלְחוּ מָנוֹת לְאֵין נָכוֹן לוֹ--כִּי-קָדוֹשׁ הַיּוֹם, לַאֲדֹנֵינוּ; וְאַל-תֵּעָצֵבוּ, כִּי-חֶדְוַת יְקוָק הִיא מָעֻזְּכֶם. וְהַלְוִיִּם מַחְשִׁים לְכָל-הָעָם, לֵאמֹר הַסּוּ--כִּי הַיּוֹם, קָדֹשׁ; וְאַל-תֵּעָצֵבוּ. וַיֵּלְכוּ כָל-הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת, וּלְשַׁלַּח מָנוֹת, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת, שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה: כִּי הֵבִינוּ בַּדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר הוֹדִיעוּ לָהֶם.
Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to YHVH your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching. He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our God. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in God is the source of your strength.” The Levites were quieting the people, saying, “Hush, for the day is holy; do not be sad.” Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.
Instead of wallowing in despair over their ignorance and shortcomings, the people are encouraged to turn towards each other and find joy with each other and with God. Rosh Hashanah represents this scene annually in our lives, as we open ourselves up to discovering our ignorance each year and name our blindspots and missteps. It is natural to feel embarrassed as we learn things we feel we should have already known, but the work of teshuvah can transform our embarrassment into a means to find joy in a growthful relationship with God and to turn to each other and build communities of blessing. Sefat Emet uses the language of oneg - delight - to describe an ongoing process of teshuvah that we experience each Shabbat.6 If we are going to continue to address longstanding problems and destructive forces in our lives and in the world around us, we need to feel nourished in the work of teshuvah and delight in it, or we will become exhausted. This is one of the central messages shared by Black womanist teachers in our own times, that we find the place for joy and pleasure as part of the ongoing and often overwhelming work of tending to broken lives and broken systems.7
Teshuvah is not in the heavens or across the sea. We do not need an intermediary who can traverse the heavenly divide or cross oceans to facilitate it. This doesn’t mean we can feel close to God immediately. But we have what we need to get started through our relationship with Torah. The longing in our hearts, and our attempts to articulate our longing as we carve our way through the words of Torah—this is powerful enough to drive ongoing transformation. When we are able to find joy in the humbling process of ongoing learning and mending our ways, God too will rejoice over us (ישוב לשוש עלינו לטוב) and together we can dance our way towards a reality of blessing.
1 Especially if we trace all of human lineage back to Kayin, the murderer. See “Our Troubled Origins,” the Devar Torah for Bereishit 5782.
2 Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 59b.
3 In some ways this makes much more sense. It is kind of ironic for the verse to say that Torah is not “in heaven” and we don’t need anyone to bring it down, because actually it WAS in heaven, and we DID need Moshe to bring it down. We understand this to mean it is no longer in heaven. But Alshikh offers an elegant alternative by describing the “mitzvah” as teshuvah instead of Torah.
4 This reread is a powerful response to what comes off as overconfidence or even arrogance in the Bavli story.
5 This is contra to approaches more dominant in Christian thought that require Jesus as an intermediary for forgiveness/salvation. Some of the language of R. Alshikh seems to be quite direct alternatives to motifs in Christian thought.
6 In multiple passages, Sefat Emet depicts an embarrassment that is not about the negativity of shame but the lightness of intimacy and revelation, and can be tied into a joyful process of growth and teshuvah. See for example:
Sefat Emet Ki Tissa 1901
אך את שבתותי תשמורו. וכן כתיב ביוה"כ אך בעשור. לומר כמו שיוה"כ מכפר לפני ה' תטהרו. כן שבת דרשו חז"ל שומר שבת מחללו מחול לו. וביוה"כ הוא ע"י ועניתם ובשבת ע"י עונג שבת…
“But keep my Sabbaths.” So it is written regarding Yom Kippur: “But on the tenth [of the month].” To say that just like Yom Kippur atones -“You will become pure before God” - so too regarding Shabbat our rabbis say “One who keeps Shabbat not to profane it” he is forgiven. On Yom Kippur it is through “You shall afflict” and on Shabbat it is through the delight of Shabbat…
7Audre Lorde’s work is formative on this point, and see the more recent book by Adrienne Maree Brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. To be sure, there are very different ways that pleasure can be incorporated into the work of teshuvah and repair. In this book, Brown is particularly interested in the pursuit of pleasure as a strategy of resistance in and of itself for people who have had a history of being subjugated and marginalized. This looks very different than the way joy can be incorporated into teshuvah for someone more in the position of uncovering the ways they have marginalized others. Nonetheless, the overarching point stands that teshuvah too entrenched in anger and despair will not thrive.