The Torah Is Very Near to Us
Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 )
“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?’ Because the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it.”1
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. Rashi explains that these verses are referring to the whole Torah as opposed to any specific Mitzva.2 The Tana Debei Eliyahu3 cites part of Moshe Rabbeinu’s words in reference to a fascinating story involving the Prophet, Eliyahu:
Eliyahu met a hunter who complained to Eliyahu that he was not given from Heaven the ability to learn and understand Torah, therefore he felt that he was exempt from trying to learn it. In response, Eliyahu pointed out to him the many skills and areas of knowledge that were required to be a trained hunter – sowing nets out of raw material, trapping fish and bird, these are very difficult tasks. Eliyahu noted that if they gave the hunter the ability to learn and understand these skills, then surely from the Heavens he was given the ability to learn and understand Torah, of which it says, “the matter is very close to you”.
The Ohel Torah explains the meaning of this Midrash. Eliyahu was pointing out to the hunter that he did not know how to hunt from birth, rather, out of necessity to have a livelihood, he had to learn the skills required to hunt animals. Accordingly, if he would recognize the vital importance of knowing Torah, then he could surely also develop the ability to learn and know Torah, because if a person would be willing to put in the effort, then the Torah would not be far from him.
Yet it is apparent that success in learning Torah seems to allude a significant number of people. One possible reason for this is that, like the hunter, a person needs to develop an appreciation of the importance of learning Torah in order to develop a relationship with God and to be able to properly observe the Mitzvot. One can quite easily appreciate the importance of earning a livelihood because of the need to support oneself. Consequently, a person will be willing to spend several years studying with mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice) in order to achieve this goal, and only if he can recognize that ultimately, learning Torah is of ultimate importance, will he be willing to put in the effort required.
A second possible hindrance to a person developing a deep relationship with Torah learning is that the learning he may have done may not have been enjoyable for him, thereby permanently adversely affecting his attitude to Torah learning. The reason for this problem is that the Talmud states that a person only learns what his heart desires4, thus, if a person was only exposed to one from of learning, he may have never been exposed to the type of learning that he truly relates to. The solution here is to try various types of learning, such as Gemara b’iyun (learning in depth), Gemara bekiut (learning at a faster pace), learning Gemara through to the practical law, and also learning other parts of Torah such as the Prophets, Mishnayot, Jewish thought and Mussar. The following idea demonstrates this point:
Three Torah leaders (Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein) were asked what is the correct way to learn Torah. They all gave the same answer – one should learn what his heart desires. Rav Edelstein proved this with a personal story: When he was a teacher in Yeshiva, they were learning a Gemara about the laws of damages - one of the students approached him and said that he was not deriving any enjoyment from this style of learning. Rabbi Edelstein asked him, what type of learning he did enjoy. He answered that he liked learning Mishnah Berurah5. Rav Edelstein then suggested that he learn the same areas of damages but with the Shulchan Aruch6, and the commentary of the Sma, which is the most similar equivalent to the Mishnah Berurah in that area of Torah. The student adopted this approach and thoroughly enjoyed it, developing a deep understanding of the topic, albeit in a different way from most of his peers. He continued to become an accomplished Torah scholar.
If a person can develop the appreciation of the importance of Torah and find the area which he most enjoys, he can also find his own portion in learning.
- Devarim, 30: 11-14.
- 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.
- Quoted in Mayana Shel Torah, Devarim, p.132 in the name of the Ohel Torah.
- Avoda Zara, 19a.
- The famous work of Jewish law written by the Chofetz Chaim.
- The seminal work of Jewish law.