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Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh

September 22, 2011

By Rabbi Robert Freedman

Two phrases vie for the honor of being the most important in the Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Humanity was made in the divine image.” Humbly I’d like to nominate another for one of the top ten. The verse is, “For the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). No other verse in Torah offers as strong reassuring certainty that we need not be confused or despairing about where to find life’s instruction manual.

At one time Moses protested that he was not a man of words, that for him speech was difficult and his lips were not fluent. But forty years later he preached the words of Deuteronomy. Throughout a full day he held forth, concluding by saying that the thing, the commandment, was not too far away or too difficult, “rather it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” What happened to him?

R. Yitshak said, “If you have difficulty speaking, study Torah and heal yourself.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Devarim, chapter 2).

Rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Tchernobyl, commenting on R. Yitshak’s midrash, gives us a suggestion for what kind of study this might be. Study Torah with great faith, he says, until it infuses you. Then you can reach the level wherein you trust implicitly that the words that you speak will really be God talking, using your mouth. This is the meaning of the phrase, “YHVH open my lips, and my mouth will speak your praise.” (Me’or Eynayim, at the beginning of his commentary on Parashat Devarim). Moses, studying Torah with the Holy One, had learned to trust that the divine teaching implanted in his heart was immediately and easily accessible. Then, as never before, he could allow them to flow from his lips.

The actual mechanism may be even more radical. It may be that divine teaching is already installed on our hard drives, and that the study of Torah is the key that releases it and allows it to be spoken.

However it works, Moses’ assertion “it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it” teaches us that Torah is imbedded in our psyche and easily accessed, whether through our study or because it is inherent in our humanity. If we have trust that we are God’s speakers, its words will flow from that deep place through our lips so that we and everyone else can hear them and be instructed.

Our speaking will initiate a self-augmenting feedback loop. The more we trust and say what has been placed on our heart, the stronger will be our ability to say it and the more trusting we can be. So Midrash Tanhuma adds to R. Yitshak’s statement, quoting Isaiah (35:6): “Then shall the lame leap like the hart, and the tongue of the mute will shout aloud.”


Rabbi Bob Freedman was ordained by AJR in 2000. Currently he is the Hazzan at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia, PA.