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Message from the Rabbi Sam Surely, this Instruction (ha-mitzvah ha-zot) which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
This message in our weekly Torah reading is timely as we approach the High Holy Days. There is disagreement among scholars about what the “this instruction” refers to. Is it referring to the work of Teshuva (repentance), the book of Deuteronomy, or more broadly to all Torah commandments? Regardless of what it covers the idea is pretty straight forward. Doing the right thing is doable.
I see it as a two-way street. Although it is expressed to the public as an encouragement to keep on the right path, it is also a message to the rabbis. We must keep Judaism as simple as possible so that people won’t give up and say it is just too hard. When rabbis put so many barriers and restrictions in place (in trying to keep people from sin) that it makes it incredibly difficult to be an observant Jew, to the point where people shortchange other important areas in their life just to keep up, maybe we rabbis are missing the message of this reading.
Our Parsha starts by qualifying the observance of the Mitzvah of bikkurim (bringing first fruit to the temple). It qualifies the Mitzvah by telling us “ki tavo” when you enter the land of Israel. The idea of mitzvot having such limitations is spelled out in this verse from the Talmud:
Thus said Moses: Many precepts were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me. (Sota 14a)
There are many practical implications for this. Some people have used it as a motivation to move to Israel so that they can perform more of the 613 mitzvot. Others see it as a way to avoid certain mitzvot that they are uncomfortable with whenever there is a possible qualifier that suggests the Mitzvah is limited to a certain time and place.
However, some mitzvot are unambiguously limited to a time and place such as appointing a king, building the temple, etc. many mitzvot that are dependent on having a king and a temple are also limited to circumstances. Thus keeping the mitzvot may not be as hard as it seems since many of the 613 are impractical in our time and place.
Shabbat Shalom! Rabbi Sam Congregation B'nai Staten Island's CBJ Hebrew School