Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 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?” 13 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?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut. 29: 11-14)
“There is so much to learn!” Every conversion candidate I’ve ever worked with has said that, at one point or another. They don’t call it “The Sea of Talmud” for nothing. Jewish learning is vast and it can be overwhelming, with languages and laws and endless intricacies to master.
This particular passage from this week’s Torah portion comes near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, after a wide-ranging catalogue of things to do and to remember. After all the 613 commandments, then God says, “Surely, this Instruction … is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” Just as I reach the point of overwhelm, reading the book, it says, “Surely you can do it.”
When I became a Jew, Rabbi Steve Chester handed me a large Torah scroll in front of the congregation. I was delighted to hold it in my arms, despite the fact that it was very, very heavy. He asked me, “Got it?” and I nodded. I recited the Shema with the congregation. Then he began to talk to the congregation about conversion. Periodically he’d stop and ask me, “Is it too heavy?” and I would shake my head: no, not too heavy. Meanwhile I clutched the scroll and my arms began to quiver. My back began to complain. I shifted the scroll slightly. “Are you OK?” he said, and I nodded. He went on teaching.
Finally I reached my limit. “Are you OK?” he said, and I gasped, “It’s very heavy.” He took it from my trembling arms, and said, “Yes, it’s very heavy. No one can hold it alone.” And then he got to the real lesson, that it takes a Jewish community to “hold the Torah” properly. It simply isn’t something a person can do alone, because the Torah is indeed very heavy.
When I feel overwhelmed by Jewish living, whether it is the cleaning before Passover, or the teshuvah before Rosh HaShanah, I try to remember that lesson. I do not have to carry the Torah alone. Surely, with the arms of a minyan, with the minds and hearts of my Jewish community, it is not beyond my reach.