A gitten erev Shabbos! This week’s parsha is Parshas Nitzovim-VaYeilech, a double-parsha.
There’s a wonderful set of pesukim about the Torah in the first parsha. Hashem tells us “Behold this commandment (the Torah) is not fallen beneath you (Rashi explains this means it is not concealed under anything. Onkelos translates the word נפלאת to mean “separate”), nor is it far from you. It is not in Shomayim (Heaven) for you to say ‘Who shall ascend for us to Shomayim and take this for us and we will listen to it and do what it says?’ Nor is it across the sea for you to say ‘Who shall cross the sea and take for us and we will listen to it and do what it says?’ Behold it is incredibly close to you this thing in your mouth and in your heart in order to do it.”
Strictly according to P’shat, this means that the Torah is not something distant and we shouldn’t say that we don’t know what to do since the Torah is distant from us. It could be difficult to understand why we need to know this, considering nowadays Torah is incredibly accessible, more now than at any other point in history. On a deeper level of understanding though, we can see something wonderful.
Ramban understands this to apply to the mitzvah of T’shuva, the mitzvah to return to Hashem. He explains the last part speaking of Torah being in our hearts and mouths to refer to the mitzvah of Vidui (Confession), which is a central part of the mitzva of T’shuva. Even in complete exile, surrounded only by non-Jews, a Jew can return to Hashem and keep the entire Torah.
The Gemoro says that even Tzaddikim Gemurim (Completely Righteous people) can’t stand in the place of a Baal T’shuva. The reason for this is that a Tzaddik Gomur doesn’t know what the pleasures of the world are like or desire; in sifrei chassidus it is said that Tzaddikim have a more refined form of yetzer hara, so the worst aveirah they probably have ever wanted to do is eat matzah Erev Pesach. A Baal T’shuva on the other hand has seen the other side and has had at least a taste of what a hedonistic lifestyle offers. So to make T’shuva requires breaking habits and serious lifestyle changes in order to completely integrate this and do the mitzvah properly.
Ultimately though, we are all Baalei T’shuva, since everyone sins to one degree or another, as the Baal HaTanya brings from the posuk “אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא” (“There’s not a righteous person in the land who does good and doesn’t sin,” meaning it is essentially impossible to be completely and only good, according to one p’shat). Once a person makes T’shuva according to the Baal HaTanya in Likkutei Amarim that person becomes a Tzaddik. So this whole set of concepts of Tzaddikim who sin, and how a Baal T’shuva is on such a high level, seem to contradict each other, indeed how any of this has what to do with the original set of pesukim in the first place.
Taking these concepts and bringing them into a unified whole we can learn a wonderful thing in avodas Hashem. It doesn’t say there that the Torah isn’t in Shomayim, rather that “this mitzvah” isn’t in Shomayim, which is what Ramban focuses on for his d’rash. What the Aibishter and the commentators are telling us is to not fear spiritual growth. All the levels of accomplishment in Torah are possible for every Jew, we just have to work on it. Ultimately we always need to analyze ourselves and correct any errors, which is the essential process of T’shuva no matter the level it manifests on; whether this is the guy who grew up listening to heavy metal and eating traif going and becoming a Shomer Shabbos, or the born Williamsburger who never left the path deciding to work better on davening with kavanna. Ultimately it is all part of the mitzvah of T’shuva, since it is part of returning to Hashem. The truest form of T’shuva is T’shuva Shel Ahavah, choosing to work on returning to Hashem from a place of love. The regret that drives this is not simple regret and fear of punishment; rather it is remorse over separation from the Divine, which is the only true punishment, and seeking to repair that. This form of T’shuva according to the Zohar in the Hakdama and various other places removes all sins and turns them into z’chuyos (merits). This is accessible to everybody, like it says in the Tanya that ahavas Hashem is present in every Jew to some degree, no matter how hidden.
From the perspective of returning to Hashem, one can attain the highest heights. Essentially T’shuva is not going to some far off place in Shomayim, rather it is turning inward to our Divine core, the Yechidah, which is untainted by our aveiros and cleaves constantly to Hashem. From this perspective we can see that it is, at the very least, not improper for a Baal T’shuva to take on perhaps different hanhagos (ways of conduct) that might seem at first to not be appropriate to their station. This also sheds light on what the Noam Elimelech says, that a Tzaddik when becoming a Tzaddik takes on different practices that might seem odd to others at first, but ultimately everyone gets used to it. So long as these are in line with Halacha and Kabbalah as accepted now, this should be accepted. Since the highest levels are attainable through working on ourselves and tapping into the Chelek Elokah Mimaal Mamesh (Literally portion of God on High) within our souls, through cleaving to the Torah – which is a part of us as well as one with Hashem – we can ultimately reach the highest levels of d’veikus associated with the Tzaddikim. Boruch Hashem, m’hot a gitte Aibishter (we have a good God), who gave the Torah to us here on earth rather than keeping it in Shomayim.