According to a Midrash quoted by Rashi (Devarim 29:12 s.v. VeHu Yihyeh Lecha LEilohim), Bnei Yisrael were petrified at the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, because while there were only 49 curses by the first set of rebukes in Parashat BeChukotay, Moshe had just added on an additional 98! Rav Yedidyah Frenkel explains that when Bnei Yisrael received the first set of curses in Sefer VaYikra, Hashem included two reassuring statements: “Then will I remember My covenant with Ya’akov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham will I remember; and I will remember the land” (VaYikra 26:42), as well as, “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am Hashem their God” (26:44). However, in the second set of curses, in Sefer Devarim, Moshe did not add such words of reassurance. Hence, there were 100 curses minus the two Pesukim telling Bnei Yisrael that Hashem promised to never completely destroy them. This caused Bnei Yisrael to be very frightened.
Additionally, Ramban (26:16) writes that the curses in Sefer VaYikra refer to the first Galut, while the curses in Sefer Devarim refer to the second Galut. Therefore, after the second set of rebukes, Bnei Yisrael understood that although they would come back from the first Galut, the second Galut might never end! The Midrash continues to explain that Moshe responded to Bnei Yisrael's fear by exclaiming, “You are all standing this day before Hashem your God” (Devarim 29:9). By saying this, Moshe was telling Bnei Yisrael to remember that they were slaves in Egypt and Hashem performed many miracles to take them out. Additionally, Bnei Yisrael had just survived journeying in the desert for almost forty years because of Hashem’s kindness; therefore, Bnei Yisrael should have realized that Hashem would be with them for eternity and would redeem them from every situation.
These words should resonate even more with Jews living today. The fact that we are still “standing this day” after almost two thousand years full of many dangerous situations shows that Hashem will never give up on us, and we should have strong belief that Hashem will end this Galut despite its length. However, there is a key difference between the first Galut and the one we are currently experiencing. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that the first Galut was ended almost completely by God’s discretion. This is supported by the fact that the VaYikra curses contain Pesukim about Hashem remembering the promises which He made to our forefathers. However, the Devarim curses have no mention of such a remembrance. Therefore, returning from this Galut is mostly up to us, as the Passuk in Nitzavim says, “And you will return to Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day, you and your children” (Devarim 30:2). This Galut’s end depends on when we return to Hashem. Only when we return to Hashem will He return to us.
The timing of Parashat Nitzavim is very appropriate because it teaches us how to repent. Rashi (Devarim 29:18 s.v. HaTzemei’ah) points out that the Torah compares intentional sinners to those who are thirsty, because they both consciously seek to fulfill a desire of their body. This comparison sheds light on another quality of sin. When thirsty people drink water, they are satisfied for an hour or two, but then get thirsty later. In other words, a drink of water does not have a lasting impact and can only sustain life if it is consumed each time it is re-desired. Similarly, sinning only fulfills a temporary temptation, while in the long run it is not beneficial at all. If somebody succumbs to desire, it will return in a stronger form and will have to be fulfilled again to satisfy his Yeitzer HaRa. Having this in mind is crucial for complete repentance and the fulfillment of commitments made on Rosh HaShanah. There is no such thing as just one cheat.
There is another crucial piece of advice that Parashat Nitzavim teaches us. Towards the end of the Parashah, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse” (30:19). Rav Jonathan Sacks points out that this Passuk highlights a drastic difference between most cultures and Bnei Yisrael’s culture. He contrasts our culture with that of Egypt. In Egypt, people would glorify death to the extent that they would force hundreds of slaves to build pyramids that were thought to be portals to the afterworld. In fact, the only documents we have from some cultures are books describing what they thought was life after death. Judaism is completely different. Tanach has virtually no mention of the world to come. One reason for this is that Judaism is about life. The difference between our world views is similar to the contrast between riding a plane and climbing a mountain. The Egyptians believed that life is like a plane, where people simply have to pass the time and be as comfortable as possible until they arrive at their destinations. According to their belief, it makes sense to look at a brochure and talk about what is going to happen upon arrival. However, Jews believe that life is a hike. When climbing a mountain, there are many things on which to focus. People need to focus on where to stop next, how long they can go in a certain day, where to rest, when to drink, when to eat, how to help others up steep slopes, and how to address various other challenges. There is hardly time to focus on the peak. The Torah does not mention the world to come because there is so much to focus on in getting there. Therefore, the Torah associates life with good and death with bad. Death is not to be focused on. It is life that needs our attention. We must live our lives not like a plane ride, but like a climb. The more effort we put in and the better we plan, the greater heights we can reach.
Parashat Nitzavim teaches us that we should have pure and complete Emunah that Hashem will continue to support us. If we realize the futility of sinning and embrace life’s challenges, Hashem will bring us out of exile.