The phrase “לא בשמים היא” – It is not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12) has received inordinate press in recent years on account of its use by the Talmudic sages to establish rabbinic legitimacy for deciding Jewish law. In this account, this phrase is understood to assert that decision making is no longer Heaven-bound, decided on high but rather it is decided here on earth by the rabbinic sages, according to majority rule. (See Bava Metziah 59b)
The contextual meaning of this phrase, however, yields a quite different message. Scripturally, this verse sums up the divine oath presented by Moshe to His charges. Moshe wanted the children of Israel to know that what God asks of the them is within the realm of their ability. “It is not in heaven” is a metaphor intended to remind them that their responsibilities to God were neither esoteric nor hidden. They were “down to earth” and not mysterious. In other words, God did not expect from them the impossible. (See J. Tigay, Devarim, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 731-20)
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe (Poland 19th – 20th century), added another layer of meaning to this metaphor. People justifiably fear the holy. It is not just that they worry about their inability to accomplish what God wants and that they might fall short of expectations. They are also unsure of the purpose of what they are doing. According to Alter, observance of the commandments is meant as a means for achieving intimacy with God – for bringing that which is in “heaven” down to earth: “For God’s commandments are not like the commands of an earthly king which are just words. Rather the commandments that God gives us are intended to bring us closer to God and to sense His power [in our lives as we live them]. The power of these commandments is not beyond us. Through the performance of the commandments, we can cling to this divine energy.” (adaptation of Sfat Emet Netzavim 5652) In other words, the observance of what God asks of us brings the divine energy into our human experience – it is no longer out of our range “in heaven”; it is a part of our lived experience.
The Sfat Emet is speaking directly to the experience of so many modern Jews who feel clueless about what to make of religion and what to make of God. He enjoins us to get to know God by experiencing what the Torah has willed to us – to use the mitzvot – God’s commandments as a means to feel God’s intimacy and to brings God’s energy down to earth.