Ari Sacher

‘Escape Room’ Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5783

How far is heaven from earth? The answer is crucial in understanding a verse in the Portion of Nitzavim. The topic at hand is the future redemption and ingathering of the exiles. The Torah promises [Devarim 30:4] “Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, G-d will gather you from there and He will take you from there.” This verse is read in most synagogues around the world each and every week in the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel” and yet only while preparing this essay did I find it odd that G-d promises to gather in the exiles from “the end of the heavens” and not from “the end of the earth”. What is the distance to “the end of the earth”? The answer is precisely half the circumference of the earth, or slightly more than twenty-thousand kilometres. One can never be physically farther than that from any point on earth[1]. But what is the distance to “the end of the heavens”? The most simple solution would be to leverage another verse in the Book of Devarim [4:32] that uses the term “the end of the heavens”: “For ask now about the early days that were before you, since the day that G-d created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, whether there was anything like [the Revelation at Sinai] or was the likes of it heard?” It turns out that this solution is anything but simple. Rashi[2], quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [38b], explains “[This] teaches [us] about Adam’s height, that it was from the earth to the heavens and that this is the very same measurement as from one end of the heavens to the other end”. Well that certainly clears things up, doesn’t it?

The distance between heaven and earth is also critical in understanding another verse only a few verses later, one of my favourite verses in the entire Torah. The Torah is telling us that we should never believe that it is impossible to live a life of G-dliness [Devarim 30:11]: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.” How close is it? The Torah answers [Devarim 30:12-13] “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’” The reason it is important to know how far away the heavens are is because Rashi, quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin [55a] comments that if the Torah were in the heavens, then we would be obliged to go there and to bring it back to earth. How much fuel would one need to complete such a journey? How much oxygen? And how much Tang? Strangely, Rashi does not make a similar comment regarding “beyond the sea”. Apparently, if the Torah were indeed located “beyond the sea”, we would be exempt from having to go there to retrieve it[3].

Hesitant as I am to venture into the realm of the esoteric Torah, as made clear by my reaction to Rashi’s comment above, an eminently esoteric comment made by some of the medieval commentators[4] can lend new insight into our problem. These commentators note that the first letter of the four words “Who will go up to heaven for us” – “Mi Ya’aleh Lanu Hashamayma” – are the Hebrew letters “M-I-L-A”, meaning “circumcision”[5]. This leads them to suggest that Moshe merited receiving the Torah from G-d on Mount Sinai because of his circumcision. What is the connection between the two?

To understand the connection, we must first understand that a circumcision is more than simply the removal of a person’s foreskin. Ritual circumcision is called “brit mila”. The Hebrew word “brit” means “covenant” such that “brit mila” means “covenant of circumcision”. What is a covenant? According to Merriam Webster, a covenant is a “a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement”. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[6], a covenant means much more than that: “In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone. A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. Or to put it slightly differently: a contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. It is about you and me coming together to form an ‘Us’.” By the act of circumcision, man joins G-d in an eternal covenant in which we pledge to be His People and He pledges to be our G-d. This covenant is burnt into the flesh of our procreative organs, symbolizing the eternality of the covenant. To implement the covenant, G-d must make Himself accessible to man by miraculously bridging an infinite gap, “coming together” from the end of the heavens to form, together with man, an “Us”. The “end of the heavens” is not a measure of distance, it is a measure of desire, of G-d’s desire to join in a covenant with man and man’s reciprocal desire to join in a covenant with G-d. G-d will redeem His people from “the end of the heavens” because He is covenantally bound to do so. We must travel to “the end of the heavens” to understand G-d’s Torah because we are covenantally bound to do so. And when the Talmud teaches that Adam, the first man, was as tall enough to “reach the heavens”, it means that G-d saw in man a future covenantal partner[7].

The idea of redemption “from the end of the heavens” can be illustrated by a story. As a teenager, I played in a band along with four of my close friends. I played the keyboards and sang. We played at NCSY conventions, shul functions, and at my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. That was more than forty years ago and we are still in touch, even though two of us live in Israel and three of us live in North America. Last year, to celebrate Craig’s sixtieth birthday, we held a reunion, spending an unforgettable Shabbat together in Maish’s apartment in Jerusalem. This year, due to timing constraints, a joint Shabbat was not an option and so instead, we decided to go to an Escape Room and then over to Ken’s home for a barbecue. For those of you who have never been to an Escape Room, here is what happens: You are locked in a room by a “Room Master”, and you must solve a series of puzzles in order to unlock the door to get out. It was all quite high-tech. Most of the puzzles were computerized. We made it out of the room in 59 minutes and then we went to Ken’s house and ate copious amounts of meat. Now here is the thing: At no time did we ever fear that we would spend the rest of our lives in that Escape Room, even if we failed to solve one single puzzle. The room had to be cleared out for the next group, who entered the room exactly one hour after we did, so we were leaving no matter what. We didn’t even have to complete every puzzle. Each time it was clear that we had figured out the concept behind a particular puzzle, we heard a “ding” and we were led to the next puzzle. All we had to was to show that we were trying. Sometimes, if we were having problems understanding what came next, the Room Master would give us hints over a walkie-talkie. We were going to unlock that door. We had a contractual agreement with the Escape Room – we paid money for one hour of fun. Our relationship with G-d is more than contractual – it is covenantal. We were exiled because we abrogated our part of the covenant. But because of that same covenant, we are certain that G-d will redeem us – we just don’t know when. It could be in 59 minutes, it could be 59 centuries. What is required of us is that we do our part, that we stretch our hands out to G-d. and wait.

If we reach for the heavens, then the heavens will reach for us.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] That is not 100% correct. The earth is not a sphere. The radius of the earth is greater at the equator and smaller at the poles.

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[3] Strangely, the antipode (the point directly opposite) of Jerusalem lies in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, such that in this case, the “end of the earth” and the “other side of the sea” are one and the same.

[4] Variants of this comment are found in the commentary of Rabbeinu Asher and in the Da’at haZekeinim m’Ba’alei Hatosafot. It is also found in the Zohar – the wellspring for Lurianic Kabbalism.

[5] The last letters of those four words are “Y-H-V-H”, or the Tetragrammaton. This factoid could easily have been folded into this essay.

[6] Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of England between 1991-2013. He is one of the greatest philosophers and spokesmen of our generation.

[7] The covenant could only be ratified by Abraham, the first person to actively seek out G-d.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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