The traditional Torah reading of the morning service on Yom Kippur is Leviticus 16, a description of the Yom Kippur procedure in the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The high priest atoned, first for himself, then for his family, and then for all the people. He symbolically placed the sins of the people on the head of a goat, and sent the goat—the scapegoat, bearing the sins, out into the wilderness. After much preparation, he entered the holy of holies, where God’s presence dwelt, to ask forgiveness on behalf of the people. The people watched the entrance in suspense and terror. If he had done even one thing wrong in his preparation, they believed, God would strike all of them dead in an instant. You can imagine, then, the relief and redemption they felt when the high priest emerged from the holy of holies, calling, “Titharu”—you have been cleansed. It must have been a moment of high religious drama and it is of historical importance to us.
The Reform movement chose a different Torah portion for this holy day. Reform congregations read all or part of Deuteronomy 29 and 39, from portion Nitzavim. In the middle of that reading come these words, ““For this commandment, which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote. It is not in heaven, that you should say; “Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us that we may do it…No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
Had the Israelites remained a priestly cult, worshiping in the Temple, sacrificing animals for God’s favor and using the priest as the intermediary between God and the people, we would no doubt be a footnote to history, another ancient culture which once existed and is no more. It was the rabbinic tradition, the one that declared, “it is not in heaven” that has brought Judaism to the modern day with its wealth of laws and ethics, celebrations of the cycle of the year and the cycle of life and commitment to social justice and to the richness of its own history and the history of the human race.
The statement “it is not in heaven” means that the Torah was given us to interpret, to turn over and over again to discover its true meaning for our own time, so that it can bring its relevance to all times and to all peoples. It means that we are to grow as we interpret in the spirit of the search for truth. It means that we are given the choice between good and evil, and although God is trying to tilt the scales to help us choose good, the ultimate choice is up to each of us.