Nitzavim: From Mouth to Heart

For you must listen to the voice of God, your God, to keep [God’s] commands and decrees, those written in the book of this Torah; because you must return to God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:10)

levavekha (לְבָבְךָ) = your heart; your mind, your consciousness.

nafshekha (נַפְשֶׁךָ) = your throat; your appetite, your desire; your animating soul.

What command is Moses talking about here in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“Taking a stand”)?  One possible command is “to keep [God’s] commands and decrees, those written in the book of this Torah”.  But the reason for observing all these rules is “because you must return to God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha.

So some classic commentators, including Ramban, Albo, and Sforno,1 wrote that the underlying command is to do teshuvah, i.e. repentance and turning back to God.

Moses continues:

For this command that I command you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not too far away.  It is not in the heavens, to say: “Who can go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and announce it to us, so we can do it?”  And it is not from across the sea, to say:  “Who can cross over for us to the other side of the sea today and take it for us and announce it, so we can do it?”  Rather, the thing is very close to you, in pikha and in levavekha, to do it.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:11-14)

pikha (פִּיךָ) = your mouth; your statement.

Sforno explained: “You also have no need for the wise men of the generation, who are far away, to expound it for you in such a manner that it will be possible for you (to do it) in exile.”2

The command to turn back to God is always possible to obey, even for those who are not “wise men”, because God helps us do it.  Earlier in the Torah portion Nitzavim, Moses says:

—if: “you return to God, your God, and you listen for [God’s] voice…  you and your children, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha (Deuteronomy 30:2)

—then: “God, your God, will return to restore you and have compassion on you… (Deuteronomy 30:3)

—and furthermore: “Then God, your God, will circumcise levavekha and the levav of your descendants to love God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha, in order that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

levav (לְבַב) = heart, mind, consciousness.

In other words, if you want to return to God with all your mind and all your desire, and you listen for God, then God will meet you halfway and open your heart so that you love God.  Loving God makes completing teshuvah a lot easier.  (See my blog post Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force.)

What does the Torah portion mean by: “Rather, the thing is very close to you, in pikha and in levavekha, to do it”?

According to Albo, “The text is certainly alluding to teshuvah.  A pointer to this are the words: ‘in thy mouth and in thy heart to do it’.  Teshuvah involves confession of the lips and remorse of the heart.”3

Then why does pikha, your mouth (or the statement that issues from it) come before levavekha?  Don’t you have to feel remorse in your heart before you can confess wrongdoing?  Don’t you have to feel like turning back to God before you can do it?

No, at least not in my own experience.  In a way, making teshuvah with God is like doing the right thing with people I don’t really like.  I know I should be compassionate and fair with them, so I make an effort to acknowledge them, say something friendly, listen to them, treat them with respect.  After I have done this for a while, I usually find myself caring about them.  Good speech leads to good feelings.

On the Eve of Yom Kippur, by Jakub Weinles

Similarly, I often feel distant from God.  It is harder for me to relate to God than to human beings, especially since I only have a vague concept of what the word “God” might legitimately mean.  I used to take the easy path of atheism, ignoring my undefinable feelings of transcendence so I could deny God.

But now I take the first step of teshuvah by turning toward God and listening for God’s voice.  When I pray or ponder a piece of Torah, the words are in my mouth first.  They echo in my consciousness, and sometimes an insight arises, as if from nowhere, as if from God.  And I feel moved, as if my heart is opening.  The thing that was in my mouth enters my heart.

Teshuvah is on the minds of many Jews at this time of year, as we approach Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”).  May each of us find a way to let the spoken liturgy enter our hearts, so that as we turn toward God, God returns to us.

  1. Rashi is the acronym for the 11th-century French rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a 12th-century Spanish rabbi. Ramban is the acronym for the 13th-century Spanish rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Nachmnaides.  Yosef Albo was the 15th-century Spanish rabbi who wrote Sefer Ha-IkkurimOvadiah ben Yaakov Sforno was a 16th-century Italian rabbi.
  2. Ovdiah Sforno, Commentary on the Torah, translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll, 1997, p. 981.
  3. From Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkurim, translated by Aryeh Newman in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 323.

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