We’ve looked many times at the famous paragraph toward the end of this week’s parasha:
The פשט is that לא בשמים הוא is a metaphor, that the mitzvah is not too hard to accomplish; the only question is what mitzvah it is (teshuva, the mitzvah of the previous paragraph) or the Torah as a whole). There is no literal שמים or ים.
But there is a דרש, a halachic interpretation that we all know:
And I have proposed that לא מעבר לים has a similar, halachic implication: the idea of a local Orthodox rabbi:
The gemara adds another דרש, an aggadic, rather than halachic interpretation:
It’s a statement about learning Torah. לא בשמים הוא means that if you are like the שמים, haughty and a know-it-all, you will be unable to learn Torah.
The gemara then continues with another דרש:
This would seem to be another statement about learning Torah: don’t be proud like the שמים, and don’t spend all your time in business, like מעבר לים. And the Rambam brings this as one of the laws of תלמוד תורה:
But Rav Kamenetsky points out that it’s not about the negative characteristics of those who would learn Torah, but about those who would teach Torah. The Rambam brings this interpretation of our psukim in his commentary on the mishna:
And note that the Rambam is commenting on those whom Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi would be a מְלַמֵּד, ”teacher“, and מַחְכִּים, ”one who makes wise“. And Rav Kamenetsky points out that there is a fundamental difference between the way the mishna presents the two cases:
To sum up: to teach Torah, you cannot be impatient, too full of yourself (גס רוח) to be able to listen to your students. That’s an absolute. You cannot also assume that your success and wisdom in other fields translates automatically into Torah knowledge. It’s possible, but you have to work on it: הווי מעט עסק, ועסוק בתורה.
The midrashic reading connects to the halachic reading above. It’s worth noting that לא בשמים היא is not literally true. Torah is in heaven; ה׳ knows the absolute Truth. לא בשמים היא means that the absolute Divine truth is inaccessible to us; the Torah tells us that there is no one who can be יעלה לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו. So too with the קַפְּדָן. An impatient teacher, who cannot tolerate their students' questions or inability to understand everything at first glance, may be full of wisdom and Torah. But that wisdom is inaccessible.
The לא מעבר לים is different. It also is not literally true; there are גדולים in faraway places. Torah exists outside my own community; it’s important to recognize that. And sometimes we do have to go יעבר לנו אל עבר הים ויקחה לנו; our local authorities are not sufficient. So the halachic idea of לא מעבר לים is not absolute, the way לא בשמים היא is. Torah מעבר לים is not inaccessible, but you need judgment to decide when it is necessary to pursue it. So too the hashkafic understanding. The Mishna says לֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים, not everyone who engages primarily in earning a living, who is not a full time Torah teacher, can make one wise. But there are those who can. You might want to go to a shiur given by someone who is not a rabbi, who does not have years of formal Yeshiva education. But it takes some judgment.
And Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi ends with the מוסר השכל: בְּמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ. The lessons in teaching Torah are applicable to everyone. Even those of us who are not rabbis have a place in presenting Torah to the world. There will always be a מָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, where only you can fulfill your role:
And that’s why you can’t be מי שמקפיד על כל דבר וכועס and הווי מעט עסק, ועסוק בתורה.