This week’s double parsha brings us starkly into the mindset of the upcoming High Holidays as it begins “You are assembled here today, all of you, before Hashem your God…” (29:9, translation mine). The first parsha, Nitzavim, ends with a famous line about the nearness of Torah. The text relates:
“Because this commandment that I command you today does not surpass you, nor is it far from you. It is not in the heavens, so that you should say: ‘who will ascend heavenward and get it for us, so that we may listen to it and follow it.’ And it is not across the ocean, so that you should say: ‘who will cross the ocean and take it for us, so that we may listen to it and follow it.’ [Rather,] the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart to follow it.” (30:11-14, translation mine)
Sforno, on the first verse in this paragraph, comments that the Torah’s commandments not surpassing you or being far from you refers to their not needing a prophet or sage to interpret them (Sforno on 30:11). However, if that is really true, and the Torah ends with a statement of it’s own (relative) simplicity, then why do we need sages, like Sforno himself? I think that it is clear, even before considering this comment of Sforno’s, that the Torah is not a simple text, and that it has always needed sages and prophets to explicate it, both in interpreting the vaguest passages and in instructing us on how to live by the Torah in our own lives. That leaves the question: what does the Torah mean here? If the sages meant to interpret this text are in a way writing themselves out of necessity, how are we to understand the nature of the Torah’s nearness?
While I look ahead to a new year and the possibilities that reading the Torah through a new lens will bring, I am not sure what to make of these verses in light of Sforno’s reading of them. I have no doubt that he considered his life’s work to be of great importance, as Jews have always done, and the Torah itself begs for interpretation more often than it is clear. Further, we vehemently disagree about what exactly the ‘obvious’ parts of the Torah are telling us. An arbiter like Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) does seem necessary, and I only hope that we can choose our leaders like Hashem chose Moshe, seeking those with the potential and the wisdom, but without any of the desire for leadership.
How do we decide
To interpret the Torah
Without our guides?