Some people swim in the summer. Some climb mountains. I like to see plays. One summer, my family and I attended a production of “Hamlet” that was preceded by a theater talk. The speaker, a local college professor, focused on the line in the play that everyone knows: “to be or not to be.” He explained that if the typical student in his class were to be asked about that line, she would say that it deals with Hamlet’s deciding whether to keep living or to commit suicide.
The professor argued that it actually asks an even deeper question. “To be?” really means “To be what?” What do you want to do with your life? How do you want to make it worth living? Can you change? Of course, this is the same question we ask as we get ready for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe.
And an answer to that question comes from another line, this one in Nitzavim, the parashah, the Torah portion, for this week. It’s a line I like so much that I had it woven onto a tallit that I purchased several years ago. In English it reads, “For the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
I love this verse in part because it doesn’t say what “the thing” is. That ambiguity opens the door to questions, which in turn opens the door to understanding.
The rabbis explained what “the thing” is in two principal ways. According to Rashi and many others, “the thing” is Torah. When Scripture says it is “in your mouth,” it’s implying the “oral Torah,” that is, the rabbinic interpretations of the text. By learning the written text and studying the commentaries, we can start to live by Torah.
Ramban (Nachmanides) and others say that “the thing” is t’shuvah, returning to the right way to live. Supporting his reading, the fairly short parashah finds a way to use the root of t’shuvah a gaudy seven times. It seems there’s a message here.
So, who is right, Rashi or the Ramban? At the risk of sounding like Tevye, I would say that they both are. Both answers help us figure out how to live. Both answers help us prepare for the Days of Awe.
We should study Torah, by which I mean all Jewish knowledge. The written text teaches, “You shall not murder.” The oral Torah – in this case, the Talmud – teaches that we can extend that prohibition to shaming others. Shaming, it says, is like shedding blood, in that it causes blood to drain from the faces of its victims.
The continuing oral Torah, the Jewish wisdom of our own time, adds new insights into how to behave. Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of one of Great Britain’s leading intellectuals who was being considered for the post of Chief Rabbi. One member of the selection committee challenged him by asking about Samuel’s words to King Saul: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts ... Attack Amalek, kill men and women, infants and children, oxen and sheep, sparing no one.” Did the rabbi believe that God said that? The rabbi answered, “I believe that Samuel heard it, but I don’t believe that God said it.” Kushner goes on, “The authentic voice of God would demand that we be more compassionate and less cruel, that we show more reverence for innocent lives.” Encountering all these texts can help us strengthen our own wisdom and compassion.
Studying Torah will help us live. So too will t’shuvah, returning. The Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshichah would tell the story of Reb Azik of Cracow. Reb Azik had a recurring dream. In it, he made the long journey to Prague. Under a bridge near the royal palace, he dug into the ground where a treasure awaited him. Finally, he made the journey, and sure enough, he found the bridge, just as in his dream. Unfortunately, the bridge was guarded by royal troops. Reb Azik wasn’t sure what to do. Eventually he aroused enough suspicion that he was brought in for questioning.
When he related his dream, the official questioning him burst out laughing. “Do you mean to tell me that you came all this way on account of a dream? Who believes the nonsense they see in dreams. Why, just the other day, I myself dreamed that I traveled to Cracow, and there I found a poor Jew named Reb Azik. I dug under the fireplace of his house and unearthed a treasure. You don’t see me buying a train ticket to Cracow, do you?”
Of course, Reb Azik used his own train ticket to return to Cracow. He found the treasure and used it to build a shul.
Like all good fairy tales, this one has a profound truth. No matter how far we travel in our journeys, our true measure lies in our return to who we are and what we are meant to be. That is t’shuvah. Remembering that, too, will help us prepare for the Days of Awe.
A midrash says that Torah andt’shuvah were present even before the world was created. They are both always there, waiting for us to take advantage of them. These things are very near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, that we might do them.
TOM ALPERT is the rabbi at Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, Massachusetts.