Parashat Nitzavim – Deut 29:9(10) – 30:20

D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:11   For this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you nor is it far off.

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Moshe has now almost reached the conclusion of his final speeches to the people of Israel waiting on the plains of Moab to cross over the river Jordan and enter the land of Israel. This statement nevertheless runs counter to one of the most commonly held misunderstandings of the Christian church: that the Torah was impossible to keep and served only as a certain means of failure to teach the Jewish people of their need for the Saviour who was to come. According to this reckoning, Yeshua was the only person who ever kept theTorah and so fulfilled it – thus freeing all those who follow Him from any obligation towards it. Hans Frei quotes Luther as a prime example: It was our inability to be righteous in the sight on G-d which left us no recourse but to throw ourselves, meritless, on His mercy.1 Later on we will see how the Bible itself shows that such teaching is false and misleading, but let’s start by looking at the way the Jewish commentators handle this passage.

The first debate concerns the scope of “this command”. Is this just the call to repentance issues in the earlier verses of this chapter – as argued by Nachmanides and one or two others – or is it being used as an all inclusive synecdoche for the whole of the Torah? The vast majority of the Jewish commentators, from the earliest times to modern day go for the latter: Moshe is talking about the Torah as a whole – the Torah is not too difficult, nor is it far off or out of reach.

The first of the two qualifier phrases לאׁ-נִפְלֵאת is the negative particle, ׁלא, and the Nif’al participle from the root פָּלָא with a feminine singular ending to match הַמִּצְוָה, its subject, “the commandment”. This root is not used in the Qal stem and can have a range of meanings in the Nif’al (or, most often, passive) stem: to be extraordinary or great; to be difficult or hard; to be wonderful or marvellous (Davidson). Jeffrey Tigay, working from the translation – “not too baffling” – points to the same root being used earlier in Moshe’s speech, “If a case is too baffling for you to decide” (D’varim 17:8, JPS), where it is applied to a legal case in which the judges do not know how to rule, and explains, “It is not beyond your ability to understand”.

What Is Targum Onkelos: An early (1st -2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era

Targum Onkelos substitutes the phrase ְלָא מַפְרְשָׁה הִיא מִנָּך, using the root ׁפָרַש, “to divide or separate” (Jastrow, to give the sense “it is not separated from you”. From there, Rashi suggests “it is not hidden from you”.

The second qualifier phrase, וְלא-רְחקָׁה, uses the root רָחַק, “to go far away, be far off”, this time as a feminine singular adjective meaning “far off, distant, remote” (Davidson). Jeffrey Tigay, again working from the translation – “beyond reach” – explains that this means “beyond your intellectual grasp”. The Sforno applies this to the Jewish people being in exile, saying, “there be no need for the wise men of the generation, who are far away, to expound it for you, in such a manner that you may be able to do it while still in exile.”
Ibn Ezra adds, “it is not hidden from you or too wondrous to be performed.”

Who Is Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death

Putting that together, the Jewish commentators are adamant that Torah was meant to be kept, was and is still keepable and was given on that basis. Rabbi Hirsch comments, “It contains no secret metaphysical reference to anything beyond the grasp of ordinary human mind; to understand and keep it does not assume anything but the ordinary conditions of life of those who are in duty bound to observe it.”

Nechama Leibowitz explains that, “The Torah is not the property of a privileged cast of priests and initiates. It is not in heaven but in our midst. It is the duty of all to study, teach and practise its tenets.” Richard Elliott Friedman offers perhaps the clearest summary: “The commandments are not enigmatic, they do not reside in a distant realm, and they do not require an intermediary. They are already made known. And they are within a human’s ability to do.” While the commentators wax lyrical elsewhere about man’s failure to keep the Torah and the need for repentance, that is because of human choice rather than human ability, not because the Torah is inherently unkeepable. As Rav Sha’ul later says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12, ESV).

Who Is Nechama Leibowitz: (1905-1997 CE), born in Riga, graduate of the University of Berlin, made aliyah in 1931; professor at Tel Aviv University; taught Torah for over 50 years

What does the Bible itself say about the way the Torah was kept? It certainly has lots of examples of people who didn’t keep the commandments and were judged in various ways for their lack of obedience. Examples of those who were righteous are admittedly fewer, but they do exist. Noah is praised as “a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with G-d” (B’resheet 6:9, JPS). Job is also “blameless and upright; he feared G-d and shunned evil” (Job 1:1, JPS). Luke starts his gospel by telling us about a couple who kept theTorah: Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist “were both righteous before G-d, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the L-rd” (Luke 1:6, ESV). Rav Sha’ul describes himself to the Philippians as “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6, ESV).

Let’s examine Yeshua’s conversation with a certain a rich young man in more detail. He comes to Yeshua and asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16, ESV). Notice how Yeshua replies: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (v. 17, ESV); He points him to the Torah. But which ones, the man wants to know; there are so many – which ones must I keep? Yeshua tells him, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (vv. 18-19, ESV). Five of the Ten Commandments, plus Vayikra 19:18 – this is very Torah-centric! But the rich young man is still not satisfied: No, no, he says, you don’t understand, “all these I have kept. What do I still lack?” (v. 20, ESV).

At this point, following standard church teaching, you might have expected Yeshua to explain that actually the Torah was never meant for keeping, that the young man had been wasting his time tilting at a windmill that he was never going to hit. But no, Yeshua accepts his claim at face value. I believe you, He says, this is quite possible, but, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (v. 21, ESV). The young man’s keeping of the Torah is not questioned; Yeshua meets the young man’s search for more by extending his application in two ways: releasing his possessions (to charity) and following Yeshua.

Now let’s go back to Rav Sha’ul again. Writing to the Galatians, he tells them, “So then, the law was our guardian until Messiah came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24, ESV). That word ‘guardian’ (the Greek is παιδαγωγός, literally ‘boy-leader’, and means an attendant, custodian or guide) is also translated as ‘tutor’ (NKJV) and ‘disciplinarian’ (NRSV) and denotes a servant or slave whose job it is to escort the children to and from school and make sure that they behave themselves, do their homework and grow up into civilised human beings. No parent would want their child to grow up into a cowering wimp who would never do anything for fear of failure and whose self esteem never got beyond, “I’m a miserable sinner/law-breaker.” On the contrary, the tutor was employed to produce strong, well educated adults who knew what they had to do and how to behave in society. The proof of such an upbringing was not someone who knew the rules but consistently broke them because he had been taught that everybody did and couldn’t do any better, but someone who consistently keeps his nose clean, lives within the rules and is confident is his ability to succeed.

Now we have a way to understand Yeshua’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18, ESV). So the Law, the Torah, G-d’s instructions on how a holy people is to behave and live in a way that honours Him, remain; they remain unchanged. Yeshua is the target of holiness and righteousness to which the Torah points: “For Messiah is the goal of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Jew and Gentile alike are a commanded people, each in our particular ways; we follow our Master, doing as He says: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10, ESV).

1 – Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, Yale University Press, 1974, page 20
Further Study: Isaiah 45:18-21; Psalm 19:7-11; 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Application: Have you dismissed the Torah as impossible and irrelevant, or have you found a way to make its instruction part of your life? Perhaps, at Yeshua’s command, it needs another, better look.