Happy Jewish New Year
Happy Jewish New Year
Text size
Deuteronomy 30:11-14
Deuteronomy 30:11-14

In the Torah portion that will be read tomorrow, the day before we usher in Rosh Hashanah, it is written: "For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 ).

The question that arises here, concerning where the mitzvah in question is to be found, can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, it can be read as, "Where can the commandment be observed?" Alternatively, it can be interpreted as, "Where are the instructions for the commandment's performance written?"

With respect to the first possibility, according to the end of the above passage, observance of the commandment does not demand that we ascend to heaven or cross the sea, rather only that we use our mouths and hearts. But there are actually only a few commandments that can be observed this way. Prayer, blessings, memory and faith depend on the mouth and heart, but what about the Sabbath? Or the commandment to return lost objects to their owners? Or those regarding offerings and tithes? Indeed, "this commandment" collectively represents all mitzvot and thus cannot be performed solely with one's mouth and heart.

The second possible reading of the question seems more fitting: It can be said that "this commandment" is written in our hearts and mouths, which must be used to search for and read it in order to perform it.

This interpretation also begs a larger, age-old question: Where is God's word to be found? The first possibility is that the text instructing readers how to behave is found in heaven, where, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, God is situated. In that case, a messenger is needed who can mediate between heaven and earth - i.e., ascend to heaven, bring down the text and read its contents to us, so that we can carry out its instructions. The second possibility is that the text is located in other lands, beyond the sea. In that case, there is the need for an agent who can mediate between cultures and can travel overseas, return with the divine text and read it out to us, so that we can act upon it. Both possibilities must be rejected: God's word cannot be "imported" from heaven or overseas because it is inscribed in the questioner's heart and mouth.

In antiquity, few people knew how to read and write, and yet the Children of Israel are instructed to learn God's Torah, to study it over and over, to internalize its commandments and perform them. Whereas the Book - the Bible - was a rarity, the same could not be said about its text or knowledge of it. That is, while the Book is the substance on which the text is inscribed, the latter could also be passed on in other ways. Thus, the commandment "and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children" (Deut. 6:7 ) is a practical instruction: The Torah must be inculcated and established in a child's memory because the collective memory is the material on which it must be inscribed. Thus, readers do not require mediating agents to process the text for them in various ways. The text is "in thy mouth, and in thy heart"; only from there must one receive it, in order to know how one "mayest do it." Man is shaped like a book, and his relationship with the divine text is intimate, like the relationship between words and the page on which they are written.

On Sunday evening, we will begin our celebration of the Hebrew New Year, also referred to as the day of memory or, as it is in the Torah, "a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns" (Leviticus 23:24 ). In the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer recited on this holiday and Yom Kippur, we read of God's own actions: "And you will remember all that has been forgotten and will open the Book of Memories, from which the text will be read and where every person's signature can be found." Thus, while the book of God is found in a person's heart, the book of man, which contains the story of each man's life, as well as all his sins and all the commandments he has performed, is in God's possession.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, found in the Mishna, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi is quoted as saying, "Look at three things and then you will never be tempted to sin: 'Know what is above you: There is an eye that sees everything, there is an ear that hears everything, and all your actions are written down in a book'" (2:1 ). The very existence of the heavenly eye, ear and book inspires discomfiture; they are the instruments for "documenting" a person's actions 24 hours a day.

In "Unetaneh Tokef," the opening of the book and the reading of its contents are described; the reading takes place automatically. Every detail of a person's life is written down in the heavenly book, whose very existence arouses feelings of anxiety because there is no distance between the book and the person whose life is recorded in it. The account of an individual's actions is comprehensive: Just by opening the book and reading the account, you will know everything about that person.

The divine eye, ear and book are metaphors taken from the human world. Like man, God has eyes, ears and a book. The ability to document events is a human characteristic, but when a person engages in this, the all-encompassing documentation as described in Pirkei Avot serves as a model for him.

Just as man reads the book of God, God reads the book of man. Indeed, two books will be opened in the coming days, as Rosh Hashanah begins. The first is the book of God, which is in man's heart and mouth; the second is the book of man, which is in God's possession. This mirror image reflects a once-in-a-year opportunity: to reshape the book of God and the book of man so that they will more closely overlap, so that they will constitute more of a dialogue, so that the discourse between man and his maker can be carried on via an open channel of communication in which there are an eye, an ear and a book - in both the celestial and lower worlds.