By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
There is a beautiful paragraph on this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, that reads, “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). The Torah is close to us, open to everyone.
The last verse of this paragraph says that Torah is actually in your mouth and heart. What is the meaning of this verse? Why should the Torah be in our mouth and heart?
Rashi (France, 1040-1105) explains that mouth and heart are an allusion to the written Torah (the text of the Torah) and the Oral Torah (the interpretation of the text of the Torah), meaning that both of them are close and accessible to us.
Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1167) writes that, “For the heart is the core of the commandments. Some commandments require the uttering of statements which serve to reinforce the heart. Others consist of deeds so that a person will utter the required statements.” Many commandments involve speech, as a means of reinforcement of our beliefs or as part of the ritual itself.
I would like to quote one more commentary from Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550) who wrote that the mention of mouth and heart in our verse is intended, “to recognize with your heart the nature of your sins and the One against Whom you have sinned so that you will express your confession and remorse to Him with your heart and with your lips.”
This is a very appropriate thought for this time of the year, in which we are getting ready for the High Holidays. During these days we confess our wrongdoings aloud. Sforno reminds us that what our mouths say should reflect what our hearts feel. Otherwise, it would be an empty confession, an intent to deceive God and ourselves. Both ways are doomed to fail.
When regulating the laws of repentance (Hilchot Teshuva), Maimonides (Spain-Egypt, 1138-1204) expresses a similar view, “Anyone who confesses verbally and does not commit in their heart to abandon [sin], this is like a person who immerses [in a mikveh] while holding an unclean creature in their hand, so that the bath is not effective until they send away the unclean creature…” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:3).
As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is important that we recognize that only a sincere teshuva (repentance) is valid and helpful. Our mouth should be ready to express what our heart feels. We are not looking for nice or proper words, but honest and sincere words. Only then will we be able to heal our souls and replenish our spirits to start a new year with good feelings and hope.