Friday, September 07, 2007

Not In Heaven (Nitzavim 5767)

For this Mitzvah is not [too] wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven that one would say: who will ascend for us towards the heaven and take it for us in order to tell it to us so that we should do it? Nor is it across the sea that one would say: who will cross for us to the other side of the sea and take it for us in order to tell it to us so that we should do it? For the matter is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Devarim 30:12-14)

The simple understanding of this is that the Torah, once given is in the hands of Man. One need not ascend to the heavens to retrieve it, as it has already been placed in the human domain, nor must one cross the world to find it, as it is accessible to all.

Rashi offers an unexpected interpretation, based on the Talmud:

It is not in heaven –were it in heaven, you would have to ascend after it to learn it.

How could this be so? Perhaps Rashi means that God would give us the means to extract the Torah from heaven. Fortunately, this isn’t necessary, as the Torah has already made it into the human domain. One may extend this to the conceptual realm: no miraculous or supernatural means are required or indeed allowed, to determine Torah law.

This is exemplified by the famous story of the halachic status of the ‘oven of Achnay’ (a type of collapsible portable oven):

It was taught there: they divided it into sections and put sand between each section – Rebbi Eli’ezer purified and the sages impurified. This is the oven of ‘Achnay’. What is ‘Achnay?’ Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Sh’muel: they turned impurified it. (the rabbis disagreed as to whether this oven was subject to ritual impurity).

It was taught: on that day Rebbi Eli’ezer gave all the responses in the world, but they did not accept them from him. He said to them: if the halachah is like me, let that carob tree prove it. The carob uprooted itself from its place for 100 cubits and some say 400 cubits. They said: one may not bring proof from a carob tree. He returned to them and said: if the halachah is like me, let the water spring prove it. The water spring started to flow backwards. They said to him: one may not bring proof from a water spring. He returned and said to them: if the halachah is like me, let the walls of the study hall prove it. The walls of the study hall began to cave in, as if to fall. Rebbi Yehoshua rebuked them by saying to them: while Torah scholars may try to beat each other in halachah, what have you to do with it? They didn’t fall, respecting Rebbi Yehoshua, nor did they stand upright, respecting Rebbi Eli’ezer and they are still standing, but leaning! He returned and said to them: if the halachah is like me, let it be proved from heaven. A heavenly voice emerged and said: what are you doing with Rebbi Eli’ezer, for the halachah is like him in every place! Rebbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: it is not in the heavens. What does ‘it is not in the heavens’ mean? Said Rebbi Yirmiyah: since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we don’t rely on heavenly voices, for it was already written in the Torah at Mount Sinai: incline after the majority. Rebbi Natan found Eliyahu and said to him: what is God doing just now? He said to him: he is laughing and saying – My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me! (Bava Metzia 59a-b)

The Seforno gives a completely different explanation. He assumes that the Torah tells us that we won’t need prophets to interpret the text for us, nor:

…sages who are distant to explain it for us. It is presented in a way that we can observe it even in exile…

The Torah can be understood by an ordinary person at any time in Jewish history – perhaps this is one of the miracles of Jewish survival.

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