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Which Mitzvah Is It?

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
September 13, 2017

The Torah relates how at the end of days after experiencing tough times, Am Yisrael will repent returning to Hashem.

The commentators are baffled by a Pasuk that seems to follow on and mentions a special mitzvah. Am Yisrael are taught that: “this ‘mitzvah’ which I (Hashem) command you is not beyond your reach… It is not ‘in heaven,’ but … it is in your heart and mouth.” (30:11-14)

The question is, which ‘mitzvah’ is Moshe referring to?

The Torah doesn’t seem to elaborate.

Ramban and others identify this mitzvah with Teshuvah -repentance- the subject of the previous ten verses. (The root of the Hebrew word Teshuvah appears seven times.) The text says the ‘thing is very close to you’, not necessarily easy. It is true that repentance, or returning to G-d (as hard as it sometimes is) is not dependent on external conditions. Many Mitzvot, one could argue, require the right setting, the right equipment, the right skills. But doing Teshuvah is purely a matter of individual free choice. The additional phrases, “in your mouth and in your heart” support this view. Medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yoseph Albo writes, “Teshuvah involves confession of the lips and remorse of the hearts” (Sefer Ikkarim).

However, the majority opinion considers this view too narrow. Moshe isn’t referring only to Teshuvah when he says ‘it is not in heaven,’ and ‘it is not too baffling.’

Rather he is referring to Torah study itself, or all of Torah, all of the Mitzvot are within our grasp. The entire Torah is meant for everyone and accessible to all. Traditionally, the Torah contains 613 Mitzvot, and the minutiae of Torah observance can often seem overwhelming. One might think, “I can’t possibly fulfil all the commandments of the Torah, so what is the point of trying?” Moshe is therefore reassuring the Israelites, “No. It is simpler than you think.”

Perhaps, this verse that refers to the whole of Torah as ‘this mitzvah’ is the inspiration to try and encapsulate all of Torah into one simple rule. According to the Rabbis (Makot 24a), the Torah can be condensed into a few, short, easy to remember principles. The Talmud relates how King David summed up the Torah into eleven principles, Micah summed up them into three. Yishaya is quoted summarizing the Torah in two principles and Habakkuk distilled the Torah into one.

The Rabbis tried their hand at it too: In the story of the proselyte who challenged the Rabbis to teach the whole Torah while ‘standing on one foot’, Hillel famously reduced the Torah to Judaism’s version of the Golden Rule (stated in the negative) “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” (Shabbat 31a).

Interestingly the Chasidic Rebbe Zusya of Anipol reduced the Torah to five verses:

  1. Be whole hearted with Adonai your God.
  2. I set Adonai before me always.
  3. Love your neighbour as yourself.
  4. In all your ways, acknowledge God.
  5. Walk humbly with your God.


These five Pesukim spell the word Teshuva. Hinting that when we follow this directive we are sure to repent and come as new in front of Hashem.

In fact, at the end of days (soon in our times), the Torah states that once Am Yisrael has experienced tough times then we will repent and return to the land of Israel:

“And it will be when the Berachot (blessings) and the Kelalot (curses) materialize … then you will take it to heart (and repent)” (30:1).

Why does the Pasuk mention the Berachot here?

Surely, it is the fulfilment of the Kelalot that will spark off the movement towards Teshuvah?

The Ktav Sofer explains that it is specifically when Yisrael are in the throes of the Kelalah, when they are in exile surrounded by enemies on all sides,  that they are better able to appreciate the Divine blessing that helps them survive. If, in spite of the seventy wolves that await the opportunity to devour the lamb (Yisrael), Am Yisrael does not succumb, rather even surviving with grace, then there can be no bigger testimony than this, that Am Yisrael are under Divine protection and not left to the pitiless laws of nature.

When they see how G-d “watches over them from the windows, and peeps through the cracks”, that is what prompts them to do Teshuvah.

In a generation that is seeing an increase in hatred towards the Jew, we are nevertheless blessed with a thriving Judaism that is engaging and flourishing.


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