There’s a famous paragraph in this week’s parasha:
But המצוה הזאת is ambiguous; there are two possible interpretations based on the previous paragraph:
One possibility is that המצוה הזאת is the mitzvah of teshuva:
But that presumes that teshuva is in fact a mitzvah, which is not clear. The Rambam implies that it is not; it is something that we may want to do, and the mitzvah describes the procedure:
Many commentators (and the gemara), understand המצוה הזאת to be a collective noun for שמעת בקול ה׳ ועשית את כל מצותיו:
And the paragraph is a reassurance that the Torah, despite being the word of G-d, is achievable:
So our text is telling us that we don’t have to go to heaven or across the sea to learn Torah. That’s פשט. But let’s look deeper.
Before we go on, I want to mention a “chassidishe vort” from the Gemara:
But I don’t think that’s the intention of the text, even at a דרש level.
For that, we know the famous interpretation of לא בשמים היא: not so much that we do not have to go to heaven to learn what ה׳ wants from us, but that we may not:
That’s understanding לא בשמים הוא. How do we understand לא מעבר לים הוא? I often point out that I will not try to give הלכה למעשה; you should consult your LOR, your local Orthodox rabbi. I won’t deal now with what “Orthodox” means (motivation and mindset) or “rabbi” (qualifications and certification). But what do we mean by “local”? There’s a concept of מרא דאתרא:
And it has halachic ramifications. The local rabbinic authority determines halacha, even if others disagree:
Now this seems to contradict the rules in previous parshiot about the centralization of halachic decision-making, but those rules only apply when the local authority is unsure:
But why the מרא דאתרא? Why should a local Orthodox rabbi have halachic priority? My answer is that it is implied in לא מעבר לים הוא; just like we may not look to heaven to interpret the Torah, so too we may not look to anyone but our local authority to interpret the Torah. That seems obvious to me but I haven’t found anyone who cites it. Maybe it’s just my חידוש in Torah.
The מגן אברהם (יורה דאה רמב:כב) derives this rule from the principle of הסגת גבול, but that would seem to only apply if he is being paid. The רשב״א in a very important תשובה points out that the concept of מרא דאתרא has been extended (in the sense of [משנה אבות א:ו] עשה לך רב) to פוסקים who are not local or even not alive anymore. Communities have determined to follow the rulings of specific פוסקים. Nonetheless, we still owe allegiance to the local רב:
[Note that he gives the reason for listening to the מרא דאתרא as כבוד הרב]
And the local rabbi still has authority, even when he disagrees with the גדול הדור:
But why should a local rabbi have more authority? What’s the connection between geography and halacha (especially in a technology-centered society like ours; why does אתרא matter)?
Rabbi Ziring points out that there are some things that have to be done in person:
And he quotes Rav Henkin (the American posek, the grandfather of the murdered Eitam Henkin) about the dangers of psak by telephone:
We can’t rely on rabbis that are מעבר לים for sensitive and personal halachic decisions, since they do not know us or our situations. A שאלה has to be asked פנים בפנים in order to get a meaningful answer. As Rabbi Student says, bemoaning the loss of local authority:
Just like לא בשמים הוא,ה׳ has given the Torah for us to understand as human beings; לא מעבר לים הוא, ה׳ has given the Torah as it applies to each of us, to be understood by those who know us as individual human beings.