Over the past few years I’ve had the privilege to give Bar Mitzvah lessons to the boys in our Hebrew school. So as not to discourage the boys from wanting to read from the Torah, I usually don’t show them how the words are going to appear in the Torah scroll until after a few lessons. If you’ve ever looked inside a Torah scroll, you know that the words are written without any vowels! When I do show them an actual Torah scroll and explain that this is what they are going to be reading from, their initial reaction is always the same: “What?! That’s impossible!” But with time and practice, they learn how to read from the Torah – even without the vowels.
During the last lesson I usually turn to the soon-to-be-bar-mitzvah boy, who by now sounds like a seasoned Torah reader, and say, “So, what happened to the impossible?” At this point I turn to the student and impart to him the following life lesson: “What you have proven to yourself over the last few months that we have been studying together is that when you put your mind to something and persevere, you can accomplish the impossible!”
This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, brings us near the conclusion of Moses’ final sermon to his beloved Jewish nation. He says, in reference to the Torah itself: “It is not in the heaven for you to say, ‘How can I get to it, take it for myself, listen to it and fulfill it?’” (Deuteronomy 30:12)
In other words, Moses was telling the Jewish people that there are no excuses for not studying the Torah and keeping it. The Torah is not in heaven or out of reach, but rather on earth and attainable to all. Rashi (1040 – 1104), the classic commentator, quotes the Talmud on this verse: “For if it were up in heaven we would be required to go up and study it there!” (Tractate Eiruvin 55a)
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman (1900 – 1987), one of the greatest Torah sages of the previous generation, pondered the meaning of this comment. How could we be required to go to heaven to study the Torah? How could a human being be expected to accomplish such a feat? That’s impossible! I know what you’re thinking – today it’s no big deal – we have spaceships! But in truth, can you imagine the number of spaceships and the amount of training and money that would be required to undertake such a course of action? Besides, where would we go? To a study hall beyond the galaxies? Now you must agree with me that even today, that’s quite impossible!
Rabbi Ruderman resolved this dilemma with a fundamental principle: If the Torah would have been attainable only in heaven, then G-d would have worked it out that along with the requirement to get there would have come the ability to reach it, no matter the obstacles. It only seems impossible because, in actuality, we do not need to travel to the heavens to attain the Torah. In truth, continued the rabbi, this principle applies to all the commandments. Every single one of the commandments that G-d gave the Jewish nation came with the capability to fulfill it, as well. At times one might say, when faced with a challenging obligation to fulfill a particular commandment, “What? That’s impossible!” But it is not so. G-d gave us the strength and the wherewithal to accomplish “the impossible.” All He wants from us is to put our minds to it and try. When He sees our sincere desire to fulfill His will, He will give us the strength and capacity to accomplish it.
What an appropriate message as Rosh Hashanah approaches! It is the time of year where the most commonly cited commandment is the mitzvah of t’shuva – to repent, to spiritually reconnect to our Creator as much as possible. But one may think, “Repent? Impossible!” But it is not so, for G-d has commanded us to repent, especially during this time of the year. If He gave us the commandment, He gave us the capability to accomplish it. All He wants from us is to show a sincere desire to repent and come closer to Him. When G-d sees our earnest efforts, He says, “I am coming closer to you now more than any other time of the year, making it easier for you to come closer to Me.”
Wishing everyone a happy and a healthy New Year!