Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘Fly Across the Ocean’ Parashat Nitzavim 5781

Three of the most compelling verses in the entire Torah are read one week before Rosh Hashanah in the portion of Nitzavim [Devarim 30:11-13]: “This Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 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? No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.’” These words serve as a call to arms: The Torah is not esoteric. It is not relegated to the bailiwick of monks and shamans. It is readily accessible to all. This is a fitting message with which to begin the New Year.

Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, known as the “Or HaChaim HaKadosh”, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century, finds the Torah’s wording puzzling. What is the difference between “baffling” and “beyond reach”? Further, while “going  up to the heavens” is admittedly an impossible task, “crossing to the other side of the sea” merely requires a ticket on an ocean liner or an airplane[1]. The Or HaChaim begins his explanation by defining two factors that can hinder the keeping of the Torah: [1] ignorance of the law and [2] physical obstacles. Moshe informs the Jewish People that neither of the two can be considered mitigating factors. Ignorance is not an excuse because Moshe had gone up to heaven and had brought the Torah down to our corporeal world where it is freely accessible. Regarding physical obstacles, when Moshe spoke about the Torah being “beyond the sea”, he was referring to the Jordan River. He was lamenting that he was forbidden from crossing the Jordan and so was unable to perform a plethora of commandments that can be performed only in the Land of Israel. For Moshe, the Jordan River was an insurmountable ocean. The rest of the Jewish People, however, were permitted to cross into Israel and were thus unencumbered by this or by any other physical obstacle.

The Or HaChaim concludes his comment with an enigmatic statement: “Even though Moshe stated, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us’, bundling ignorance together with physical obstacles, nevertheless his primary point concerned physical obstacles.” The English translation of the commentary of the Or HaChaim available on the Sefaria website does not translate this statement as much as it summarises it: “Nonetheless, the principal meaning of this line is that there are no valid excuses for not observing Torah. It is easily accessible.” What is the Or HaChaim trying to tell us?

I suggest that the first step in understanding the Or HaChaim lies in noticing that when scripture writes “Neither is it beyond the sea” – “V’elo me’ever la’yam hi” – it prefixes the phrase with the letter “vav”. This vav is known as the “vav ha’chibur” – the “conjunctive vav”. The Sages often use the conjunctive vav to thematically connect two consecutive verses or topics. Implementing the conjunctive vav, the Torah is actually saying “And neither is it beyond the sea”, bundling together ignorance and physical barriers. But to what end?

We will address this question in a somewhat unconventional manner – via the physics of flight. What makes an airplane fly? An airplane in flight has four forces that simultaneously act upon it: Lift, weight, thrust and drag. These four forces are essentially two pairs of opposite forces. “Lift” is the force that holds the airplane in the air. It acts in the “up” direction, away from the surface of the earth. Lift is generated by the aircraft’s wings. Lift is countered by a second force, called “weight”. The weight of the aircraft pulls it “down” toward the surface of the earth, courtesy of the earth’s gravity. In order for an airplane to fly, the amount of lift generated by its wings must be greater than the force of the earth’s gravitational pull. The third force acting on an airplane is called “thrust”, which propels the airplane forward. Thrust is generated by an airplane’s engines, be they propellers, rockets, or fanjets. Thrust is countered by “drag”, a force that acts in the opposite direction, slowing the aircraft down. Drag is caused by the viscosity of the air through which the airplane flies[2]. The amount of drag is proportional to the velocity of the airplane, such that the faster the airplane flies, the harder the engines must work to counter the generated drag.

How does an aircraft generate lift? By far the most popular explanation of lift is Bernoulli’s Theorem, a principle identified by an eighteenth-century Swiss mathematician named Daniel Bernoulli. Bernoulli attributed lift to the curved upper surface of the airplane’s wing, or “airfoil”. The asymmetric shape of the wing means that air passing from the front (leading edge) of the wing to the back (trailing edge) of the wing has farther to go when it passes over the wing rather than it does when it passes underneath the wing. In order to prevent a vacuum from being created, the air passing over the upper surface of the wing must move faster than the air flying over the lower surface. The faster moving air causes the air pressure above the wing to decrease and the higher pressure below the wing “pushes” the airplane upwards[3]. The faster the air above the wing moves, the more lift that is created. A necessary conclusion is that thrust is required in order to create lift and the more thrust, the better[4].

Returning to the explanation of the Or HaChaim, when the Torah bundles together ignorance and physical barriers, it is telling us that there is an interplay between the two and that a person must counteract one of these factors in order to counteract the other. Referring back to the physics of flight, I suggest that the Or HaChaim would agree that physical barriers can be compared to thrust while ignorance can be compared to lift. “Even though Moshe… bundl[ed] ignorance together with physical obstacles, nevertheless his primary point concerned physical obstacles.” Just like a wing can generate no lift without thrust, in the same way a person cannot combat ignorance unless he is willing to counter the other obstacles in his path. If a person is unwilling to expend the time and energy necessary to live a life according to G-d’s Will, then all of the Torah in the world will not move him one iota. It is too easy to hide behind “It’s too [expensive / time intensive / awkward] to [send my children to a Jewish day school / wake up for minyan / put on tefillin in the airport]”. The thrust required to overcome this inertia is what generates the lift of understanding. This can help us understand what the Jewish People meant when, after they were offered the Torah, they replied [Shemot 24:3] “We will do and we will listen”. Doing, even when you don’t understand why you are doing it, is a prerequisite for listening. Rabbi Aron Moss writes that praying even though you are not in the mood is like telling your wife you love her after a “moment of tension”. You tell her not because she needs to hear it but because you do. By doing so, you reach outside of yourself, “bursting the bubble of self-absorption”. Rabbi Moss concludes, “By saying the words of the prayers, even without feeling them, the layers of cynicism and doubt start to melt away and our connection to G-d comes to the surface.”

If you do, then you will listen. If you attack the obstacles that impede your spiritual progress, then you will see G-dliness that you might have missed. Think about that the next time you sit on an airplane waiting for take-off.

Shabbat Shalom and Ketiva v’chatima tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] And perhaps a negative PCR-test for COVID-19

[2] Recall that air is a gas full of molecules. Drag is caused by the airplane “bumping” into the molecules.

[3] Lift can be demonstrated by blowing over a piece of paper and watching as it counterintuitively rises.

[4] Things are actually much more complex. This theory does not explain why airplanes can fly upside-down or why symmetrical wings can generate lift. Believe it or not, 120 years after the Wright brothers first flew, scientists are still uncertain why airplanes stay in the air, see this link: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/no-one-can-explain-why-planes-stay-in-the-air/. One theory suggests that it is the interrelation among these four forces that enables flight. “They support each other in a reciprocal cause-and-effect relationship and none would exist without the others”. I hope to flesh this out in the future.

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 2001 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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