Can we ascend to Heaven? Are we expected to go up to heaven? And of course, the central question is How do we ascend to heaven? This is the subject of this week’s parsha discussion.
This week’s Torah portion is parshat “Netzavim.” The parsha deals with the Torah in general and specifically with the mitzvah of teshuva (repentance). This mitzvah is especially relevant to us during these days, as we draw close to Rosh Hashanah. The Torah teaches: “This commandment that I am commanding you today is not hidden or distant from you. It is not in Heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to Heaven and bring it down for us, so that we can study it and fulfil it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ The matter is very close to you—in your mouth and your heart—to fulfill it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
What is your opinion of what the Torah means when it says, “It is not in heaven”? If the Torah was in heaven, would we be required to climb to heaven to take the Torah from there? Our sages teach us, somewhat surprisingly, that the answer is yes: “It is not in heaven—but if it were in heaven, you would have had to go up there to learn it” (Rashi, Eruvin 55a). This seems very puzzling. Is it possible that if the Torah was indeed in heaven, we would be expected to ascend to heaven to take it? Are we angels? Are we on the level of Moses who went up on the mountain and for forty days did not eat or drink as it is written: “When I ascended the mountain to get the Tablets of stone, the Tablets of the covenant that God made with you, I stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. I did not eat any food or drink any water” (Deuteronomy 9:9). Could it be that our sages meant this literally?
Rabbi Natan explains that this is referring to human effort. The word “heaven” is referring to a very elevated form of spiritual service. In fact, the Torah is so important and precious that it would have been appropriate for each person to start out by ascending to spiritual heights thorough making a supreme effort. Thus, it is fitting that serving G-d should be done with all one’s might, which analogous to the concept of “heaven.” Yet G-d knows very well the base nature of human beings and how difficult it is for us to serve Him. Seeing that human beings have such an evil inclination, how much more difficult it would be for us to actually start out on a truly sublime level of devotion. And in fact, even after they have already begun to serve G-d, not everyone is capable of sustaining a high level of Divine service.
But if this is indeed what G-d wants from us, can most people fulfil the requirement to serve Him according to His Will? This is exactly what the Torah teaches: “It is not in heaven.” That is, the Torah does not require man to ascend to “heaven,” meaning that when he is just starting out, he is not expected to perform lofty levels of Divine service, and this is especially true for those who are actually unable to serve G-d on an exalted level. The Torah teaches us: “The matter is very close to you—in your mouth and your heart—to fulfill it.” G-d requires a person to do only what he can do and is capable of doing according to his spiritual level at that very moment.
This is similar to what is said regarding Jacob in the verse: “A ladder standing on the ground and its top reached to heaven” (Genesis 28:12), that is, everyone is required to reach “heaven,” but the difference is in the path they take. There are those who start off already in “heaven,” with a high level of Divine service, and there are those who climb the ladder with determination, starting out from the place where they find themselves at that given moment and moving up step by step, progressing stage by stage over time until they reach the summit of “heaven.” (You can read more about this in our discourse on parshat Vayetzei.)
What exactly is being discussed here? It is known that one of the obstacles that can stand in a person’s way is the spiritual aspiration to reach his destination quickly. Just as in the physical realm we don’t have patience to sit in a traffic jam since we want to get to our destination quickly, so too does this hold true in the spiritual realm. But just as it is impossible to bypass a traffic jam and speed off quickly when there are vehicles in front of us, so similarly, it is impossible to bypass our spiritual obstacles and reach our destination at warp speed. Such behavior carries a very high risk. A person needs to maintain a proper balance—on one hand, he needs to serve G-d with true desire, and on the other he should not advance too quickly, putting the “pedal to the metal.” It takes a lot of patience to conduct oneself according to one’s true spiritual ability.
G-d requires a person to do only what he can do and is capable of doing according to his spiritual level at that very moment!
This is what the Torah is warning us: “It is not in heaven.” Do not progress to lofty levels of Divine service as long as you are not on the spiritual level to maintain them, but on the other hand, don’t take your foot off the gas—don’t stop striving to reach the destination because of this, and certainly don’t slam on the brakes. Your goal is to continually progress; don’t stand still, but do not accelerate too fast either.
“This matter is very close to you—in your mouth and your heart—to fulfill it.” Simply put, we should act sincerely and in accordance with our strength. What should we be doing? We should make every effort to progress beyond where we are holding right now. “Because this matter is very close to you.” Try a little harder to reach the next step, the one closest to you. Just go a step beyond where you are now. This is all that is required of you. Doing it this way, you will be able to be cautious and beware of the flaming of the heart which is above your level, which can cause, G-d forbid, a person to completely fall apart and slide into the abyss of despair and fallen desires. And on the other hand, you will not spiritually burn out by going beyond your current true spiritual level.
This is Rabbi Natan’s explanation regarding one side of the coin: acting calmly and progressing gradually. Elsewhere, however, Rabbi Natan refers to the other side of the coin and offers a different explanation of the same verse from the point of view of the “power of one’s will.” Rabbi Natan explains that our sages taught us: “If a person says, ‘I worked hard and I was successful’ one should believe him. But if he says, ‘I was successful, without working hard,’ one shouldn’t believe him.” This is to say, without self-dedication, without being ready to jump into the water to break through huge obstacles that are characterized as a “sea” and an “abyss,” it will be impossible to merit receiving the Torah.
Every person must have an infinite yearning for and devotion to the Creator. In order to fully understand the ways of the Torah, he must be willing to literally surrender his soul. And since “HaKadosh Baruch Hu does not deal tyrannically with his creations,” (Avoda Zara 3a), it means that He does not send a person obstacles and difficulties that he cannot to overcome (if he really and sincerely wants to overcome them). Therefore, when a person is truly strong in his desire to stand up to his challenges and to be successful, to the point that he is willing to give his soul to pass the test, G-d Himself removes all the obstacles for him and enables him to overcome his tests.
It is understandable, then, that when a person is willing to give his life for the sake of the Torah, he deserves to indeed receive the Torah. Then all the obstacles are eliminated, and he receives the Torah in its entirety. According to this, the meaning of the verse: “It is not in heaven… because the matter is very close to you—in your mouth and your heart—to fulfill it” is explained as follows: When a person is so strong in his desire that he is ready to ascend to heaven for it, and to cross the seas for it (as we brought from Rashi’s commentary), then the rest of the verse is immediately fulfilled “because the thing is near to you.” This means that all the obstacles are immediately eliminated, and suddenly everything in holiness becomes close to him without any obstructions.
Everyone is required to reach “heaven,” but the difference is in the path they take!
We have seen two different explanations from Rabbi Natan for the same verse. They do not contradict one another; quite the contrary: they complement and complete one another. There are two ways of behaving. There is a behavior of the power of one’s will, which can drive a person to do great things. Accordingly, a person must increase the power of his will infinitely and be willing to serve G-d with all his heart and even with mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice). If the Torah were indeed in “heaven,” that is, if it could only be attained if we were to give our souls for it, then indeed it would be fitting to do so. In practice, however, when a person is not on this level, he must not act in a way which is beyond his abilities, because he can easily “break the vessels” and fall away from any level of achievement in spirituality. So, he must act in a gradual fashion, according to his ability and strive to raise himself up one step at a time beyond the level where he finds himself at that given moment, until he reaches the summit.
On the one hand, we do not want to miss the opportunity to achieve what we can and are capable of doing spiritually here in this world. On the other hand, we also do not want to rush too much and fall spiritually from the level we have achieved. That is why it is so important to always pray to G-d to guide us with good advice on how we should behave in the ways of repentance.
(Based on Likutei Halachot, Trumot u’Ma’asrot 3 and the second interpretation of Likutei Halachot Hechsher Keilim 4, and an explanation which connects the two teachings)