Purifying the Heart

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
  • הדפסה

כי המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוך היום לא נפלאת הוא ממך ולא רחקה הוא. לא בשמים הוא לאמר מי יעלה לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו וישמענו אתה ונעשנה. ולא מעבר לים הוא לאמר מי יעבר לנו אל עבר הים ויקחה לנו וישמענו אתה ונעשנה. כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו.

The mitzva that I command you today is not hidden from you nor is it distant.  It is not in the Heaven, that you might ask, “Who shall ascend to the Heavens to claim it for us, and inform us so that we may fulfill it?”  It is not beyond the sea, that you might say, “Who shall cross the sea to grasp it for us, and inform us so that we may fulfill it?”  Rather, it is very near to you, in your mouths and hearts to perform it.[1]

What is the mitzva that is “near to our mouths and hearts,” to which Moshe Rabbeinu referred in this week’s parsha?  The Ramban suggests two possible explanations.  Firstly, he suggests that it refers to the mitzva of teshuva, mentioned in a previous verse, “And you shall return to Hashem, your G‑d.”[2]

Teshuva involves three components: regret, confession, and the resolution to improve.  Hence, we can understand the conclusion of this passage, “It is very near to you, in your mouths and hearts to perform it.”  Teshuva must be “in your mouths” – by confessing our sins to Hashem.  It must be “in your hearts” – with sincere regret and determination to improve our ways.  And we must “perform it” – by being faithful to our resolutions.  Alternately, the Ramban suggests that the mitzva discussed here refers in fact to the entire Torah.

Rabbeinu Bachaye explains “this mitzva” as an allusion to the three pillars of creation – Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness.  Thus, “in your mouths,” refers to Torah that must be studied aloud.  (According to the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, one does not fulfill the obligation of Torah study by reading silently.[3])  “In your hearts,” refers to prayer, which our Sages call “a service of the heart.”[4]  “To perform it,” refers to practical acts of kindness.

The Chassidic texts explain the verse, “It is very near to you, in your mouths and hearts to perform it,” as a reference to any individual mitzva, since most mitzvos contains three elements.  Speech – we recite a beracha before performing a mitzva; thought – a mitzva must be performed with the appropriate kavana; and deed – the act of the mitzva itself.

Although all these explanations shed light on the conclusion of the passage, they do not explain why it goes at such length to deny the alleged excuses that the Torah is “in the Heavens” or “beyond the sea,” and thus inaccessible to us.  What do these excuses mean, and how are they incorrect?

In the pursuit of perfection in Torah and mitzva observance, there are two main obstacles that must be overcome.  The first obstacle is our failure to understand the deeper meaning of the mitzvos.  This prevents us from performing the mitzvos with the necessary joy and enthusiasm.  Mitzvos that we fail to understand are apt to be taken lightly, or performed by dry, lifeless routine.  When we treat them like an unwanted burden, they cannot provide their full influence on our souls, to draw us closer to Hashem.

The second obstacle is the constriction of our hearts that occurs when we allow ourselves to be drawn after our selfish, material desires.  A heart consumed by the empty pleasures of this mundane world becomes like a lifeless stone, unable to appreciate the rich, spiritual beauty of the mitzvos.  A person who has fallen prey to these vain pursuits lacks any desire to exert himself in the fulfillment of mitzvos, since he does not enjoy them.  Mitzvos seem to him as nothing more than a heavy burden that he is forced to carry.

In order to achieve perfection in mitzva observance, we must overcome these two obstacles.  We must understand the meaningfulness of the mitzvos, on the one hand; and open our hearts to a life of spiritual pursuit, on the other.  For this we pray לב טהור ברא לי אלוקים ורוח נכון חדש בקרבי – “A pure heart, create for me, Elokim; and a proper spirit, renew in my breast.”[5]  We pray for a pure heart that can enjoy the mitzvos, and a proper spirit to understand them.

With this we can understand the passage quoted above: “The mitzva that I command you today is not hidden from you, nor is it distant.”  Sometimes, the meaning of a mitzva is hidden from us, causing us to be lax in its fulfillment.  Other times, we find ourselves emotionally distanced from a mitzva.  It seems far from us, and difficult for us to fulfill, since our cold, stone-like hearts prefer the effortless entertainments of this world.

To overcome these obstacles, we are told that the mitzva, “is not in Heaven.”  Do not be alarmed when the mitzvos seem high above our understanding.  “It is not beyond the sea.”  Do not be discouraged when the mitzvos seem distant and difficult.  The distance can be crossed and the difficulties can be surmounted, if the necessary effort is applied.

As the solution to both these problems, the Torah advises us, “It is very near to you, in your mouths and hearts to perform it.”  “In your mouths” -  refers to Torah study, of which the verse states, “This Sefer Torah shall not falter from your mouth.”[6]  Only through Torah study can a person come to understand the deep inner meaning inherent in the mitzvos, and all their rich and fascinating details.  He can awaken a new, proper spirit in his breast, purifying his heart and soul through the study of mussar.  Through the Torah that a Jew studies, he can ascend to the perfection of Hashem’s service, and conquer all the obstacles that stand in his way.

[1] Devarim 30:11-14

[2] Devarim 30:2

[3] Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:12

[4] Taanis 2a

[5] Tehillim 51:12

[6] Yehoshua 1:8