A story is told in Greek mythology about Sisyphus the king of Corinth who angered Zeus king of the gods. As punishment, he was to hoist a mighty rock up to the top of a mountain and rest it upon its peek. Unfortunately, Sisyphus could never complete this task since as soon as he placed the rock on top of the mountain it rolled back down again and he was forced to start over. Such is the fate of Sisyphus, to toil for no benefit and without hope for eternity.
Sometimes, only a very fine line can be drawn between a task that is possible to complete and a task that is impossible to complete. The damage caused by a task that cannot be completed is in not only its incompletion, but much worse, in that it encourages apathy and a lack of will and motivation to persevere. In psychological terms this is called “Learned Helplessness” – A person learns that it makes no difference what he does and how much he tries, he will never succeed.
Towards the end of the Torah, leading up to the New Year, we read: 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?” Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.
Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel explains that these verses are dealing with the Mitzvah of Teshuva: “And since the Mitzvah of Teshuva is… a cure for all illness and a rectification for all curses, about Teshuva it is said, it is not in heaven, meaning because of the great benefits that one receives from this mitzvah, man would have even found it advantageous to build ladders up to the heavens to retrieve it from there… because all that which is possible for man to do for this mitzvah should be done. All the more so since we are told that this mitzvah is not beyond reach…”
The mitzvah of Teshuva is a basic commandment, which demands from man some penetrating self-examination. One is required to regret all passed actions and to take upon oneself more good deeds in the future. One can begin the journey of Teshuva at any given time while the much longed for peek is Yom Kippur. According to the Abarbanel, because of the importance and centrality of this mitzvah, the Torah could have assigned it as a task that is unattainable, which is found in the heavens. However, it is comforting that this is not the case. Despite the significance of this mitzvah (and perhaps even because of Teshuva) the Torah emphasizes in our parasha and announces, “It is not in heaven”.
The days of atonement and mercy, in which we find ourselves, are the final stretch before the summit. The last push of the rock when one can still take a deep breath, to gird strength and to continue the ascent. We all bear a heavy burden on our shoulders during the course of the year, laden with guilt, inner suffering and negative feelings. Everyone with their own satchel. Everyone with their thoughts, feelings and emotions. But Judaism gives us hope and assigns a peek on which one is able to rid oneself of this burdensome and irritating load. These days remind us that now is the time to ask forgiveness from our spouse, children, friends, parents, and teachers and even from G-d. Asking for forgiveness and Teshuva during these days is like reaching the peek and stationing a personal flag at the top of the mountain.
As an answer to the fictitious Sisyphustic feeling, these verses relate to the ideal of Teshuva. They determine that it all depends on us! We are being tested. An entire year we are carrying on our shoulders a heavy burden, but there are times when we are able to alleviate ourselves of this bothersome load. In Judaism, there is no such thing as an impossible task. Each person has the strength and the ability to cope, because after all “it is not in heaven…”