“The Torah that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven ... it is something that is very close to you” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13).
A great illustration of this passage is contained in the Yiddish story by I.L. Peretz titled “If Not Higher.” In this story, a skeptical Jew of Lithuanian descent is determined to disprove the holiness of the Rebbe of Nemirov as part of his plan to defeat the Chasidic movement, and prove that these “holy men” are nothing but frauds. He chooses the Rebbe of Nemirov because his followers have the most outlandish belief about their rebbe. They believe that during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the rebbe ascends to heaven to plead with God on their behalf.
A skeptic follows the rebbe before dawn and watches as he dons peasant clothes, chops a tree into firewood and carries the load on his back to a broken-down shack. An elderly, homebound woman opens the door and the rebbe proceeds to make a fire in the woman’s wood stove. As he stacks the wood, the rebbe whispers the High Holy Day prayer.
The rebbe’s act of charity and compassion persuades the skeptic to become one of his greatest disciples. Later, when the former skeptic is asked if his rebbe really goes to heaven during the Ten Days of Repentance, the skeptic replies, “If not higher!”
So often we believe that by following prescription, we can achieve the greatest spiritual heights. We convince ourselves that the way to piety, spiritual growth and amazing heights of inspiration is “ascending to heaven,” meditation, absorption in prayer and spiritual devotion. While all these are blessed and beautiful paths, sometimes the most spiritual path is the one that is not about us at all.
The Rebbe of Nemirov ascended to the highest spiritual heights by demonstrating the spiritual essence of the Holy Days: Torah is not in heaven, Torah is here on earth. And what is the essence of Torah? As Rabbi Akiba famously stated, “Love thy fellow as thyself. This is the totality of Torah.”
Our dedication to this principle is one of the ways that we are judged during the Days of Awe. Did we live a year looking out for ourselves? Or did we live a year dedicated to helping one another? Did we aspire only to our own spiritual and material benefit or did we also seek the betterment of others?
The Torah is lofty in vision and idealism, but also grounded here on earth. The Torah is not in heaven, it is here, in the messy, imperfect world that God placed us here to fix.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is the director of JConnect and Jewlicious as well as the author of the forthcoming book “Prayers for Israel.” He also appears in “On Sacred Ground: Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages From the Five Books of Moses” (Blackbird Books, 2012).
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