A Mysterious Mitzvah by Eitan Leff


In the middle of Parshat Nitzavim, we find a beautiful yet pragmatic passage about a certain Mitzvah whose exact identity is unspecified. The Torah states (Devarim 30:11-14) “Ki HaMitzvah HaZot Asher Anochi Metzavecha HaYom, Lo Nifleit Hi Mimcha VeLo Rechoka Hi; Lo BaShamayim Hi Leimor ‘Mi Ya’aleh Lanu HaShamaymah VeYikacheha Lanu VeYashmi’einu Otah VeNa’asenah’; VeLo MeiEiver LaYam Hi Leimor ‘Mi Ya’avor Lanu El Eiver HaYam VeYikacheha Lanu VeYashmi’einu Otah VeNa’asenah,’ Ki Karov Eilecha HaDavar Me’od, BePhicha UViL’vavcha LaAsoto,” “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you will need to say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and get it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can follow it?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you will need to say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and get it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can follow it?’ Rather, this thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

Aside from the fact that the Torah uses very vague words in formulating this Mitzvah—“HaMitzvah HaZot,” “this commandment,” “Otah,” “it,” and “HaDavar,” “this thing”—the Torah also notably uses three descriptions of the “closeness” of this Mitzvah: It is not very far away, nor is it in heaven, nor is it across the sea. Wouldn’t only one description suffice to illustrate the closeness of the Mitzvah, and what is this mysterious Mitzvah?

Rashi (30:12, s.v. Lo BaShamayim Hi) believes that the Mitzvah mentioned in the passage is the Mitzvah of learning Torah. The reason the Torah says that the Mitzvah is not in heaven is because if the Torah was in heaven, we would have to go into heaven to learn it; it is a privilege that the Torah is incredibly accessible to us down on Earth. The Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:8) also understands that the Pesukim are referring to the Mitzvah of learning Torah. He explains that the words “Lo BaShamayim Hi,” “it is not in the heavens,” teach us that learning Torah eludes people who become haughty through the study of Torah and consider themselves lofty as the heavens. “VeLo MeiEiver LaYam,” “it is not across the sea,” teaches us that Torah likewise is generally not found in those who travel incessantly across the sea, as they have no time for Torah. Alternatively, the Gemara in Eiruvin (53a) explains that “Lo BaShamayim Hi” means that the Torah is not to be found in those who think that their mind is above the Torah and thus think they do not need a teacher, and “VeLo MeiEiver LaYam Hi” means that the Torah is not to be found in those who broaden their mind over it, like the sea, meaning that they think that they know all that there is to be known about a certain topic in Torah.

In contrast to Rashi’s explanation of “HaMitzvah HaZot,” the Ramban believes that said Mitzvah is the Mitzvah of Teshuvah, repentance. This explanation makes sense in context; earlier in the Perek (30:8), Moshe Rabbeinu explicitly promises that each Jew will eventually repent: “VeAtah Tashuv VeShamata BeKol Hashem,” “You will return and listen to the word of Hashem,” and now, he teaches that it is an obligation to do Teshuvah. In that light, some of the more obscure references in the passage become clearer. The Pesukim speak of the closeness of the Mitzvah and it being “BePhicha U’Vilvavcha La’asoto,” “It is in your mouth and your heart to do.”

In his Shiurim on the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah, Rav Soloveitchik noted that the three components of Vidui (the verbal acknowledgment of sin)—stating the sin, regretting it, and accepting upon oneself to do better in the future—line up perfectly with the three components of Teshuvah (the inner process of returning to Hashem)—ceasing to do the sin, removing the sin from inner thoughts, and accepting upon oneself to do better in the future. Consequently, the Rav defined Vidui as the verbal expression of the inner process of Teshuvah; in other words, Vidui and Teshuvah are all part of one broader Mitzvah of returning to a former state of Avodat Hashem, service of God (see Rambam, introduction to Hilchot Teshuvah). In this dialectic, Vidui is the Ma’aseh, the action, and Teshuvah is the Kiyum, the fulfillment. Thus, if we take “HaMitzvah HaZot” to refer to Teshuvah, the phrase “BePhicha U’Vilvavcha La’asoto,” “in your mouth and heart to do it,” makes perfect sense; there is a verbal component in the mouth and an inner component in the heart.

May we all be Zocheh to achieve a full and complete Teshuvah to our actual selves, with both the external and internal components, and to keep up that internal state throughout the year.

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