Sefer D'varim is known in English by the name Deuteronomy, from "second law," another attempt to correct the mistakes made by the generation in the desert. Relationships, whether they are between God and us or among us, require ongoing attention, adjustments, and perseverance.
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)
Our mouths and our hearts are inextricably tied together, both practically and textually. We read in the Amidah, "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart…." Ben Sira said, "The heart of the fools is in their mouth, but the mouth of the wise is in their heart" (21:26). Our words can be used to express our deepest feelings. Or, we can try to deceive others (and ourselves) but using our mouths to express what is not in fact in our hearts.
God's instructions are in our mouths and our hearts, we are taught, not in our eyes, or in our ears, or in our noses, or at our fingertips. This image reflects the fact that we have internalized God's teaching and should look inward for direction. God's commandments are close to us, internal and therefore portable, not reliant on the outside world. They can go with us wherever we go.
One important mitzvah (commandment or good deed) we observe with our mouths is that of transmission of Torah to the next generation. In the centuries after the Exodus, oral transmission was essential to learning. Transmission and interpretation of Torah was done orally as the Torah was read and translated publicly. In addition, Deuteronomy 6:7 (recited as the V'ahavta) commands us to impress these instructions on our children by speaking them "when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up."
Commenting on the verses from our selection, Nachmanides teaches that these words refer primarily to the mitzvah of repentance. When we seek God's forgiveness on Yom Kippur for sins we have committed against God, we are already supposed to have asked for forgiveness from other people. Our feelings of regret or embarrassment may make it seem impossible to approach someone and ask for their forgiveness. The imagery in these verses emphasizes that nothing, no distance and no time, should stand in the way of repentance. First we must internally come to terms with our actions (in our hearts) and then express regret and ask for forgiveness (with our mouths). Repairing relationships is within our own power, if we but take courage and use our words to express the feelings in our hearts.
Table talk for families with 3-5 year olds
- How do you feel when you say that you are sorry? What about when someone else apologizes to you?
- Describe a time it was hard for you to use words to express your feelings. What made it difficult?
Table talk for families with 6-8 year olds
- Everybody makes mistakes. On Yom Kippur, we can fix our mistakes by asking for forgiveness and trying not to repeat our mistakes. Practice asking forgiveness from people in your family.
- How does it feel to ask for forgiveness? Keeping that in mind, how do you want to react to people who apologize to you? What can you say to let them know that you forgive them?
For further learning
- These verses are not included in the traditional reading for Yom Kippur. Why do you think they were selected to be read in Reform congregations on this holy day?
- We are told that these instructions are not in heaven. The She'erit Menahem said that nothing of the Torah was left in heaven; it was all given by God to Moses and the Israelites. What are the implications of this statement?
(Yom Kippur Morning) Deuteronomy 29:9–14, 30:11–20 (Afternoon) Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18, 32-37
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, (Morning) pp. 1,537–1,538, 1,541; (Afternoon) pp. 894–896, 899–900;
Revised Edition, (Morning) pp. 1,373, 1,376–1,377; (Afternoon) pp. 798–800; 803–804