IT’S NOT IN HEAVEN.
The Torah portion says of God’s Word, “It’s not in heaven or across the sea” (Deut. 30:12). Even if it were in heaven or over the sea we would still be duty-bound to strive for it, but it’s not as distant as all that. It is accessible wherever we happen to be.
There must be a symbolism in the use of the words “in heaven” and “across the sea”. Possibly it is this: The Torah is neither spiritually and intellectually beyond us, nor is it geographically inaccessible.
Take each category on its own. The first says that the Torah is not too high for us – “in heaven”, as it were. God bless you if you’re a saint or a genius, but most people aren’t. Saints and geniuses can find their way to the Torah; so can the rest of us. On one level or another, we can all comprehend and adopt Torah ideas and insights.
The second category says that the Torah is not “across the sea”. If you live in the Diaspora, forget about saying, “Things are different in Israel. There it is easier to follow the commandments”. Israel is certainly different and superior, but don’t make it an excuse for not raising your religious levels in whichever place you happen to be.
And if you do have the blessing of being in Israel, don’t make an excuse out of that either, saying, “If I were in Jerusalem things would be different”. In Jerusalem things would be different, but that shouldn’t stop you elevating yourself anywhere else.
HARD TO BE A JEW
“This commandment which I command you this day,” says the Almighty, “is not too hard for you, neither is it far off” (Deut. 30:11).
Not too hard? It feels that way.
The Rambam’s calculation is that there are less than a hundred commandments which apply to the ordinary person living an ordinary life. Put to one side those commands that apply only to rare categories of people or in rare situations or at rare times, and we are actually left with far less than the famous figure of six hundred and thirteen. Then analyse the commandments that do apply to us, and most of them are not so-called “rituals” but ethical commands – loving one’s neighbour, honest weights and measures, keeping far from a falsehood.
Yet whether it is ritual or ethical duties that devolve upon us, it is often a difficult task. To keep kashrut or Shabbat correctly is not easy, nor is living a decent, moral, modest, truthful life.
The important thing is to remember that it can be done, not by constantly obsessing about our duty but by developing a mind set which says, “I am training myself to act instinctively in the way I am commanded to”… and to use this method in matters of ethics and not just ritual. The Jew who has a well-honed ethical instinct will automatically avoid shameful or questionable modes of conduct. Their instinct will also tell them what to say and what to do when it comes to making decisions, whether they appear great and world-shattering or small and almost insignificant.
GOD’S GOOD BOOKS
Why do we use “book” metaphors at this time of the year, for example the wish that we may be written down for a good future? The idea derives from the Torah, where Moses speaks of being inscribed in (or erased from) the book God has written (Ex. 32:32-33).
In the Talmud (RH 16b), Rabbi Kruspedai says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that God has three books one for the perfectly righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one for the in-between category. The fate of the first two types of person is recorded without delay. The book of the intermediate category is left open during the Ten Days of Penitence before God makes His decision about them.
Since Rabbi Yochanan is no fool, he must be telling us something significant in this passage. The message is that the majority of people come in the intermediate category. Someone said, “God must love ordinary people, since He made so many of them”. Very interesting, but why does God leave us in limbo while He makes up His mind about us?
Because, as the prayer book declares, “God waits to the very last moment for a person to repent”. Until the eleventh hour and even later we are still able to move from the “wicked” category towards the “righteous” one. The decisions we make in the week leading to Yom Kippur can be life-changing. In the atmosphere of these days a sudden thought can enter our minds, even a lone word, which sets us off in a new direction.
A husband told me that when his wife remarked, “Our marriage is about us, not just the children”, he suddenly knew what he had to do.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.