Going Up to the Heavens
After a lengthy admonition regarding the consequences of not following the Torah, Moses assures the people that despite the seeming difficulty in learning and keeping the Torah, it is actually easily attainable.
"For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heavens, [for you] to say, 'Who can ascend to the heavens for us and take it for us and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?' Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say, 'Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?' Rather the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it." (1)
Rashi explains that these verses are referring to the whole Torah as opposed to any specific mitzvah (commandment).(2) On the words, "it is not in the Heavens", the Gemara observes, that if it was in the Heavens, then we would somehow have to go up there to learn it. And on the words, "nor is it across the sea", the Gemara points out that if it were across the sea, we would have to cross the sea to learn it.(3)
The following story involving the great tzaddik (righteous man), Rav Zalman of Volozhin, demonstrates the lesson we should take from this Gemara. On one occasion, Rav Zalman was learning in a small village. On the other side of the river was the great town of Vilna. In the middle of the night, Rav Zalman felt a great desire to study a particular sefer (book) that was in the main Beit Hamidrash (study hall) in Vilna. He didn't hesitate for one moment, rather he went out in the middle of the night in the freezing cold weather to Vilna until he found the book that he desired. The onlookers were shocked at how he could go to such extremes in such cold weather to get a book. He explained with the verses in Nitzavim that say that the Torah is not in the Heavens and is not across the sea. He then quoted the aforementioned Gemara stating that if the Torah was in the Heavens or across the sea, one would have to go there to study it. The short journey across the river to get to Vilna was nearer than the Heavens and even closer than across the sea. Accordingly, he felt that he had to make the required effort to attain the book that he needed for his Torah learning. We learn from Rav Zalman's actions that whilst God does not make impossible demands on us with regard to learning Torah, He does expect us to make considerable effort to learn to the best of our abilities.
We further learn from a Gemara in Yoma that any obstacles blocking our ability to learn Torah are not insurmountable. The Gemara says that when a man comes to the next world he will be asked about his Torah learning. The Gemara anticipates a number of excuses that one may use to justify his failure to learn. He may claim that he was too poor, and because of his poverty he had to spend all his time trying to earn a livelihood. Alternatively, he may argue that he was too rich, and that he was too distracted by his business to learn. Moreover, he may maintain that since he supported Torah with his money, he was exempt from learning Torah himself. Thirdly, he may contend that he was too beautiful to be able to avoid the yetser hara (negative inclination) of immorality. The Gemara proceeds to provide examples of people who faced the most difficult tests in these areas, and despite this, succeeded in learning and observing the Torah. Hillel was an extremely poor man and he could not even afford to pay the entrance fee to the Beit Hamidrash, yet he went to extreme ends to try to learn. Rebbe Elazar was extremely rich and faced tremendous pressure to focus on his businesses, but he preferred to focus on his learning. Joseph was exceptionally beautiful and faced great tests in immorality, yet he withstood the temptation.(4) This Gemara teaches us that no-one can claim that it was impossible for him to learn or observe Torah because of his circumstances. Of course, there are challenges that must be overcome, but with the requisite effort, everyone can learn and observe the Torah.
What is the key factor that determines whether a person to overcome the many obstacles preventing him from Torah learning? It seems that this can be answered with Rav Yisroel Salanter's response to a question he was asked by a businessman. The man told him that he was so busy that he only had a very short amount of time available to learn each day. He asked Rav Yisrael what he should learn in that short time. Rav Yisrael answered him that he should learn Mussar.(5) Once he does that, he would soon realize that he could find considerably more time to learn! Rav Yisrael was communicating to him that the reason that he could not find more time to learn was that learning did not have a high enough priority in his life. By learning Mussar he would develop his appreciation of the importance of learning Torah to his life and as a result he would find more time. We learn from here that if a person appreciates the true value of Torah learning, then he will place it far higher up in his list of priorities. As a result, he will find it far easier to overcome all the barriers and distractions that prevent him from learning.
A person may intellectually realize that Torah learning is very important to their lives, but it still remains very difficult to internalize this and apply it to one's life. Rav Noach Weinberg gives a very insightful suggestion in this area. When a person is very tired, it is difficult for him to motivate himself to do anything that involves much effort or thought, including learning Torah. Similarly, if someone were very busy, he would find it very difficult to find any time to learn. However, if one were to offer him a large sum of money to learn Torah for half an hour extra, then he would suddenly find the time and energy! This teaches us that if something is valuable enough then a person will conjure up the time and energy to do it, despite the difficulty. The Sages teach us that one moment of learning Torah is infinitely rewarded, more than any other mitzvah, needless to say it is of infinitely more value than all the money in the world. Accordingly, when a person is busy or tired, if he would think that of the reward that he could accrue by taking a few minutes to learn Torah, then he could surely overcome the challenges and do so.
As the High Holy Days approach, it is essential to assess one's life priorities and ask oneself if he truly devotes as much time to learning Torah as possible. The Sages' assertion that he must go up to the Heavens and across the sea to learn Torah, teach him he must certainly try to overcome the smaller challenges that he faces.
1. Devarim, 30:11-14.
2. The Ramban argues with Rashi. He writes that these verses are referring specifically to the Mitzva of teshuva (repentance). See Kli Yakar who discusses both approaches.
3. Eruvin, 55a.
4. Yoma, 35b.
5. Mussar is Torah study that is aimed at self-growth and developing one's relationship with God.