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The Secret to Truly Understanding Torah

By: Rabbi Daniel Goldstein

One of my most favorite passages in the Torah is found in this week’s parsha:

For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?" Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. (Devarim 30:11-14)


While on the face of it, Moshe’s message is a simple one of encouragement, one part of it has always landed on my ear with a bit of a thud when listening to the words in Hebrew. The two active words in Moshe’s exhortation are familiar ones nashmi-einu v’na’asenah. Of course, we recognize the pairing of these two verbs from a most auspicious time in our history – when the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Har Sinai with the phrase Naaseh v’nishma, we will hear and we will do! It’s hard for me to imagine that these two words just fell coincidentally out of Moshe’s mouth and that the pairing was not introduced purposefully. But if that is the case, two questions arise: Naaseh v’nishma seemed to be a positive phrase –it certainly is in the eyes of Chazal. Why then is Moshe urging the people against it. “Do not say,” Moshe advises, “who will go up to the sky and bring it to us so that we will hear and do.” Wasn’t that exactly what Moshe did? Wasn’t that a good thing? And secondly, why does Moshe invert the words. In the original pairing, the phrase is Naaseh V’nishma. Here its Nishma v’naaseh. An understanding lies in the meaning of the word nishma, and the distinction between the two occasions the phrase is referenced.


While nishma can mean obey, it can also mean understand (see Bereishit 23, and verse 16 in particular.) Taken as such, the two passages have different meanings. The Jews received the Torah on Har Sinai with a pledge to obey. No strings attached. Moshe had ascended the heavens, as it were, and brought it to them. The majesty of God’s revelation and the awesome power of His presence left them no choice than to declare, we will obey, and then we will understand. Such was the clarity of that moment. Their connection to Torah was forged by the power of revelation. However, when Moshe was addressing the people at the end of his life, the message was different. If the Torah were to be eternally connected to the Jewish people, there needed to be a new dynamic—one where the Torah was connected to the people not by an outside force but by an internal one. No one was going up to the heavens anymore. If you want to understand the Torah, Moshe says, you are going to have to go there yourself. You cannot achieve “nishma”—true understanding, if you are waiting for someone else to do the work for you. You must do it on your own. Only then will the Torah be truly yours.


With two weeks under our belt, the class of 5783 welcomes the Rosh Hashana holiday at the cusp of fulfilling Moshe’s words. They have worked hard so far, and they are beginning to understand as they learn in classes and chavruta that the road to Torah knowledge and understanding runs through them. The work is challenging but I have faith that they are up to the task. And at the end of the journey lies the sweetness of knowing that they will have gone up the mountain to bring the Torah down for themselves because in truth, no one can do it for them.


May we all be blessed with a happy, healthy, meaningful and productive new year.