This week’s parsha comes near the very end of the book of D’varim and begins on Moses’ last day on earth. Moses is struggling to make sure the people will have all the tools they need to move into the land of Israel and continue as a coherent and strong nation, living by Torah and the guidance it teaches. Some of what he tells them is harsh. But, like a good parent with a child, Moses knows that a little bit of reality to consider is good for any transition.
And there are some serious transitions to think about. Not just in the Biblical narrative but we read this portion at the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. It is a sort of last chance to hear the words that should help us make our own journey into a new year. Will we make Torah a part of how we choose to continue growing as individuals? As families? As a community? We will ask ourselves that next week as we stand in shul and hear the familiar words that sung out.
This parasha includes a powerful statement to the Israelites. Moses gives them a choice, follow the mitzvot and live or do not and die. He commands them to choose life. Much has been written on what this might mean. Is it a simple behaviorist idea or something more? That is for us to decide.
But it is clear that it is difficult to fully understand what the Torah is asking of us, and as we leave the wilderness and the connection to God through Moses, it will get difficult to maintain the energy and dedication without some support. But Moses throughout this time wanted to make the Torah something the people would keep close to their heart and on their mind. In fact he says the Torah is not far away, it is not in the heavens, it is here with the people. It is something that will remain with the people as long as we continue to learn from it. One way of looking at this is that Torah is something for us to continue to struggle with, chew on, and find meaning in. It is a document that grows with the people. It is a document that defines us as a nation and we find our meaning in it. However it is not static, it is not meant only for the people in the wilderness but it belongs to all of us. In fact tradition teaches us that it is up to us to find meaning for ourselves.
Stories in the Talmud are often used to help us understand what the Torah is meant to mean to us. One particularly well-known story that relates to this parsha comes from Bava Mezia 59b. The story is a discussion over the ability to make an oven kosher when it had become unkosher. While almost all the sages felt it couldn't be, Rabbi Eliezer, a lone voice but a great scholar, disagreed:
The rabbis argued over the rules and nine stood apart from Eliezer.
Frustrated he said to them, “If the halakha is according to me, let that carobtree prove it.”
The tree outside the House of Study uprooted itself and moved several yards and replanted itself in the ground. But the nine said, “We do not learn Torah from trees”.
Rabbi Eliezer then said , “If the halakha is according to me, may that stream of water prove it.”
The stream of water then turned and flowed in the opposite direction.
The nine said , “We do not decide Torah based on a stream of water.”
Rabbi Eliezer, continuing in his frustration, said “If the halakha is according to me, may the walls of the House of Study crumble before us.”
The walls of the House of Study began shake and collapse, bending inward. Rabbi Joshua then rose up and yelled to the heavens, “We are arguing Torah as we are charged to do, why do you interfere?”
Was walls stopped and stood in their bent state. But a voice from the heavens came and could be heard by all.
“Why do you disagree with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakha is correct according to him.”
"Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, 'It is not in the heavens' quoting this week’s Torah portion. (Deuteronomy 30:12).
Rabbi Nathan later met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, “What was the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing in that hour?”
Elijah responded that at that moment God was dancing through the heavens and laughing saying, “My children have defeated me.”
Clearly the ancient Rabbis found a way to help us better see that the Torah is ours to understand. God wants us to make meaning out of it through our continued struggle. It is not meant to be the stimulus-response prescription, the Torah starts a conversation, we must continue with it. We must keep up our end of the dialogue. When we stand in shul next week, let’s see if we can make that happen.