Nitsavim – The Mouth and the Heart

כי המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוך היום, לא נפלאת היא ממך ולא רחוקה היא. לא בשמים היא, לאמר: מי יעלה לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו וישמיענו אותה ונעשנה. ולא מעבר לים היא, לאמר: מי יעבור לנו אל עבר הים ויקחה לנו וישמיענו אותה ונעשנה. כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד, בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו.

(דברים ל’, י”א-י”ד)

Nitsavim is always read on the shabbat before Rosh HaShana. It is the last parasha of the year. The Talmud says (Megillah 31:) that Ezra the Scribe instituted this so that we will get all the curses over and done with before the new year. Not that there are explicit curses in Nitsavim (certainly not compared to the ordeal we went through last week in Ki Tavo) but be that as it may, our parasha is a most fitting one to read as we approach the new year.

Moshe tells the people of Israel:

For this commandment which I command you today, it is not too hard for you neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ But the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

(Devarim 30, 11-14)

What is this “commandment” that is in our mouth and heart to do? There are two possibilities. Rashi says it’s the Torah itself, so the heart should want Torah and the mouth should learn it. But Ramban says it’s teshuva (repentance), so the heart should have remorse and the mouth should say viduy (confession).

Both teshuva and Torah require the mouth and the heart, much as teffila (prayer) is עבודה שבלב (working God with our hearts) but requires also speech. We open daily prayers with ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהילתך, asking God to open our lips so that our mouth can praise Him. Both go together. Confessing, learning or praying only with our mouth is not only insufficient; it is considered as false. The Kuzari (R. Yehuda HaLevi) likens those who say the words but don’t mean them to meaningless bird chirping. And the Rambam rules that praying with no kavanah (meaning) is not considered praying. Indeed, it is intuitively apparent to us that our heart must participate fully in the act of teshuva or Torah learning for them to mean anything. How many times have you heard a fellow Jews say: “I may not be observant, but I believe in God in my heart”?

But what’s with the mouth? Why is it so important to say confession with our lips? Won’t God know what’s in our hearts even if we don’t explicitly say the words? And yet Rambam rules that saying the viduy with our lips is a positive mitsva, without which we do not fulfill the requisites of teshuva.

R. Soloveichik explains that humans are incapable of knowing what is in their own hearts until they formulate their thoughts and feelings in words. Only after we put together a coherent and logical sentence are we able to fully articulate our deepest selves . Man is naturally stubborn, refusing to say out loud what he knows to be true deep inside. By confessing with our lips we force ourselves to face reality, to admit to ourselves what we did wrong and where we should improve. This is a necessary step in the path to repentance, without which our teshuva is incomplete. As the popular saying goes, admitting the problem is the first step in solving it.

The verse explaining that the commandment (teshuva or Torah) ends with a positive action: “in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it”. After the mouth and heart, how does this third component – doing – come into play in the process of teshuva?

After abandoning the sin, teshuva has three steps: remorse, confession and a commitment not to sin again. We saw that the mouth is responsible for the confession and the heart for the remorse. What about the commitment for the future fit in? Is it also a thing of the heart, an inner conviction not to err again? R. Haim Sabato explains that perhaps we misinterpret the words “that you may do it”. The Torah does not refer simply to an inner commitment (of the heart) not to sin again. It is asking us to do something: לעשות. Simply repenting may not be enough. We need a positive action, a tikkun, in order to fully complete the process of teshuva. As the verse in Tehillim  (34, 15) says: “depart from evil, and do good”. Not only we need to abandon the bad; we also need to embrace the good.

Finally, there is an interesting choice of words in these verses. They open with a mitsvah: “for this commandment which I command you today”, but they end with: “but the word is very near to you”. Initially, we see teshuva as yet another commandment that we are obligated to fulfill. We go through the motions of repentance because, basically, we have no choice but to obey the rules of God. However, once we have completed the process and reached the conclusion that walking in the ways of God is our inner purpose, it becomes a “word”, something that is a part of us.

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One thought on “Nitsavim – The Mouth and the Heart

  1. Pingback: Torah Thoughts « Nafka Mina

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