On Rosh Hashana, we stand before Hashem and beg for forgiveness for the sins we committed over the past year. Through countless prayers we lament our possible fates and beg Hashem to inscribe us in the Book of Life. Though we do not always deserve it, it appears that Hashem grants pardons year after year and inscribes us in the Book of Life. We then set goals for the next year and try to improve one aspect of our character or religious practice. In the Days of Repentance that follow Rosh Hashana and culminate with Yom Kippur, we continue to pray to Hashem to judge us favorably. Through this time, we are more conscious of their behavior. For example, we daven more intently and less Lashon Hara is spoken. As time goes on, however, many lose sight of their earlier resolutions and begin to revert to their old behavior. Often, people return completely to their old behavior patterns. After the cycle of another year, Elul returns and we begin once again to pray to Hashem to forgive us and the cycle repeats.
Parshat Nitzavim tells of a similar cycle - one not based on years, but on centuries and millennia. The Parsha opens with all of Bnai Yisrael standing before Hashem ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. Hashem renews His covenant with them at this time. Why did Bnai Yisrael require a new covenant with Hashem? Wasn't the old one from Har Sinai still valid? Was it out of date? The Baal Hatanya answers with a parable:
When friends make a covenant it is not for the present, but for a future time when they might not feel close to each other or when geographical distance may keep them separated. The covenant ensures that even if they are not close, the relationship will continue.
Right before entering Eretz Yisrael, Bnai Yisrael were very close to Hashem. Later, the covenant served to keep Bnai Yisrael close to Hashem as the people met the challenges of settling the land. Today, although there are no prophets, we still have the covenant, the Torah, to keep us connected to Hashem.
The Parsha continues and warns against idolatry, the reason the covenant was necessary in the first place. Hashem wanted to ensure that the Jews would continue to keep the Torah and serve Him as God, even without the same close contact they enjoyed in the desert. The Parsha then relates that later generations would stray from Hashem and worship other gods. When this happened, plagues and enemies would besiege Eretz Yisrael until the people realized what they did and asked Hashem for forgiveness. They repented and began to act properly. Soon after, Hashem forgave them, and the Jews lived lives of Torah and Mitzvot - that is, until the next time they forget to follow Hashem.
The pattern is clear; it is easily identifiable. The lesson told in this week's Parsha is eternally true. Many people sin and repent, sin and repent, etc. This year we should all be more aware of this unfortunate pattern and avoid falling into this counterproductive rut. So, in the weeks to come, let us make one resolution to be a better Jew and better person in one specific way. Progress comes one step at a time. Do not let your progress fall by the wayside after the holidays have passed. Perhaps next year we will be asking for forgiveness from a new and more spiritually elevated level.