Today’s daf offers three perspectives on the appropriate attitude to take when learning Torah.
The first interpretation emphasizes the labor and work that go into learning Torah.
Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Dosa said: What is the meaning of that which is written: It is not in heaven…nor is it beyond the sea (Deuteronomy 30:12–13)? “It is not in heaven” indicates that if it were in heaven, you would have to ascend after it, and if it were beyond the sea, you would have to cross after it, as one must expend whatever effort is necessary in order to study Torah.
This perspective notes just how hard learning Torah can be, with its complex ideas, deep nuances and ancient resonances.
The second perspective emphasizes the humility necessary to truly engage in the act of learning.
Rava said: “It is not in heaven” means that Torah is not to be found in someone who raises his mind over it, like the heavens, i.e., he thinks his mind is above the Torah and he does not need a teacher; nor is it to be found in someone who expands his mind over it, like the sea, i.e., he thinks he knows everything there is to know about the topic he has learned.
Rava insists that only those who are open to learning, who ask questions without assuming that they know all the answers, can truly achieve Torah knowledge.
The third perspective emphasizes both the humility and the time necessary to truly learn Torah well.
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: “It is not in heaven” means that Torah is not to be found in the haughty, those who raise their self-image as though they were in heaven. “Nor is it beyond the sea” means that it is not to be found among merchants or traders who are constantly traveling and do not have the time to study Torah properly.
Rabbi Yohanan insists that learning Torah takes consistency and commitment. It’s a slow process of learning and growing that requires the ability and the willingness to put in the time.
Each of these perspectives is based on an interpretation of two verses in Deuteronomy: 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?”
These verses are part of Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, where he imparts wisdom and encouragement to a people preparing to move on without him. While Moses insists that the Torah is not in these distant places which most can never reach, he goes a step further in the very next verse: No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
Each of these rabbinic interpretations notes that you get out of learning Torah what you put in. Torah takes work, and like all work, it requires time, effort, and the humility to admit what you don’t know. And yet, this last verse offers a key difference between regular work and Torah.
The Torah is already close to us, in our mouths and in our hearts. We must put in the work of learning Torah, yes, but the Torah has already put in the work of learning us. And so rather than be overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort that learning Torah requires, perhaps we can think of it instead as a kind of coming home, a shedding of the regular work day and relaxing into a different way of being that already exists in our hearts and minds, waiting for us to discover it.