“It is not in the heavens for you to say,
‘Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it
for us so that we can listen to it and perform it?’….
Rather the matter is very near to you,
in your mouth and your heart, to perform it.”
– Devarim 30:12-14
After many grave warnings against leaving the ways of the Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu tells Klal Yisrael that learning and keeping the Torah is within easy grasp of each of us. “Acquiring it doesn’t require wings to fly to the heavens, and studying it doesn’t demand crossing oceans.” Rather, Torah is well within the reach of each person.
Rashi, in commenting on the words “it is not in the heavens,” adds the explanation: “For if it were in the heavens, you would be obligated to go up after it to learn it.”
This is difficult to understand. Rashi’s role in Chumash is to clarify what the Torah means. As an aid to understanding, he may use examples and parables, but the goal is always to explain the pshat – the straightforward meaning of the pasuk.
This comment not only fails to help us understand what the Torah is telling us – it isn’t true. Since time immemorial man has dreamed of flying, but man cannot sprout wings and fly. How can the Torah expect the impossible from us? And even more, this explanation is the opposite of what the Torah is trying to tell us. The entire paragraph outlines how close the Torah is and how easy it is to attain it. What is Rashi trying to teach us with his comment, “If it were in the heavens, you would be obligated to go up after it to learn it?”
The answer to this can best be understood with a mashal:
In 1997, in Tallahassee, Florida, a young boy was involved in an accident and ended up being pinned under the wheel of a car. Rescuers couldn’t help him; he was trapped. An onlooker, seeing the danger, rushed over, and almost without thinking, reached for the fender of the car, lifted it off the ground, and freed the boy.
The unusual part of the story is that the hero, the one who lifted the car, was not a trained emergency professional or some big burly fireman, but rather the boy’s 63-year-old grandmother who had never before lifted anything heavier than a bag of dog food.
The story became a media sensation and Dr. Charles Garfield, author of a book of fantastic sports feats titled Peak Performance, decided he wanted to interview the woman. However, she wasn’t interested in talking to him. She wouldn’t return his calls and did everything she could to avoid discussing the event. Finally, Dr. Garfield, being a persuasive fellow, got her to agree to a meeting, and the reason she’d been reluctant to discuss the act turned out to be almost as amazing as the act itself.
During the discussion, the grandmother said she didn’t like to talk about the incident because it challenged her beliefs about what she could and could not do: “If I was able to do this, when I didn’t think it was possible, what does that say about the rest of my life? Have I wasted it?”
After further discussion, Dr. Garfield asked her what she would like to do. She explained that she had never had the opportunity to further her education after high school. So after some coaching, Mrs. Laura Shultz began college at the age of 63. She received her degree and then went on to teach science at a community college.
This story is illustrative of a very human tendency. Our understanding of what is and what is not possible creates imagined ceilings of opportunity for us. If I were smarter, I would have…If I were more talented, I could have…but I just can’t do it. Yet some people, who aren’t any more talented, who weren’t given all the breaks, just seem to plow through and make the seemingly impossible happen. It almost seems their attitude is their single greatest asset.
This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. The Torah isn’t telling us we need to sprout wings and fly. Rather, this is a mashal for the drive a person must have to succeed. If a person’s attitude is, “Whatever it takes; no mountain is too high, no obstacle too difficult, and if it were up in the heavens, I would fly there,” then he will reach heights. However, if that enthusiasm is lacking, no matter how close the Torah is, he will not acquire it.