Before he dies, Moses assures the people Israel that “Surely the instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach” (Deuteronomy 30:11). He furthers assures them that “It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us…” (v.12). Based on Moses’ assurance, Rav Avdmi (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 55a) concludes that were the Torah in heaven, you would be obliged to go up after it; if the Torah were across the sea, you would be obliged to traverse it and fetch it.” However, in his super-commentary on RaShI, Rabbi Elijah Mizrahi (ca. 1455 – 1525) points to the obvious difficulty with the statement of Rav Avdimi: if the Torah were in heaven, no one could possibly retrieve it!
The difficulty would be insurmountable were the intention of Moses a requirement to acquire the Torah no matter the challenge. But perhaps the effort to acquire the Torah is not the issue at all. Perhaps Moses is using the willingness to acquire the Torah from the most inaccessible places as a metaphor for self-assurance. On this reading, it is not where the Torah is located that matters but the question that is asked: “Who can get it for us?” Those who ask this question are surrendering to a self-perceived impotence. They readily admit they are unable to take on the task and wonder if another can complete the task for them. The question is not rhetorical. It is concessional. It concedes that the task is far beyond the abilities of the questioner.
Noteworthy is the fact that later in the time of the monarchy a similar question is asked by God: “Who will go for us?’ (Isaiah 6:8) and warn the people of imminent doom should they fail to repent. But this time, the prophet, purified and eager says: “Here I am; send me.” The contrast is stark. The people Moses addresses lack all self-assurance while the prophet Isaiah exudes it.
The message could not be any clearer. Moses, before his death, asserts that the quality most needed by the Israelites as they prepare to go forward without the leadership of Moses is confidence. And confidence is as much in need by Jews today as it was needed by the Israelites who stood on the east bank of the Jordan River. To be sure, the issues facing the Jewish people today are daunting: assimilation, intermarriage, low fertility rates, rising antisemitism, the demonization of Israel, increasing costs of Jewish education and more. But rather than surrender to pessimism, Jews must go forward with self-assurance. As Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to climb Mount Everest, once said: “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”