One of the major themes of Parashat Nitzavim is the idea of Teshuvah. Midrash Rabbah (Eichah 5:21) records a dispute between Bnei Yisrael and Hashem as to who should begin the Teshuvah process. Hashem claims Bnei Yisrael should, quoting the Pasuk, “Shuvu Eilai…VeAshuv Aleichem,” “Return to me…and I will return to you” (Zecharyah 1:3). Bnei Yisrael, on the other hand, believe that doing so is Hashem's responsibility, quoting the Pasuk, "Shuveinu Elokei Yisheinu," "Return to us, God of our salvation" (Tehillim 85:5).
Yefeih Anaf points out that on the surface, this Midrash is difficult to understand. If Hashem begins the process of our doing Teshuvah, He would be taking away our right of Bechirah Chofshit, free choice, between sinning and doing Teshuvah. Bnei Yisrael's claim, therefore, seems absurd. Furthermore, the Pasuk quoted by Bnei Yisrael, "Shuveinu Elokei Yisheinu," refers not to Teshuvah but to the Geulah. Yefeih Anaf concludes, therefore, that the dispute centers on the order of the Yeshuah that Hashem will bring and the Teshuvah that Bnei Yisrael will do. Bnei Yisrael claim that Hashem should first bring the Yeshuah, and the resulting closeness of Bnei Yisrael to Him will expedite the Teshuvah process. Hashem, on the other hand, says He will not bring the Yeshuah until Bnei Yisrael do Teshuvah.
The Pesukim in Parashat Nitzavim seem to contradict themselves by expressing the opinions of both Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. First, the Torah states, “VeShavta Ad Hashem Elokecha VeShamata BeKolo,” “You shall return to Hashem, your God, and listen to his voice” (Devarim 30:2); only afterwards does it state, “VeShav Hashem Elokecha Et Shevutecha VeRichamecha VeShav VeKibetzcha MiKol HaAmim,” “Then Hashem, your God, will return you capitivity and have mercy upon you, and He will return and gather you in from all the nations” (30:3). This order implies that it is Bnei Yisrael's job to do Teshuvah before Hashem brings the Geulah. However, while describing the Yeshuah, the Torah states, “UMal Hashem Elokecha Et Levavecha VeEt Levav Zarecha LeAhava Et Hashem Elokecha,” “Hashem, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring to love Hashem, your God” (30:6), implying that through the Yeshuah, Hashem will help Bnei Yisrael do Teshuvah. Furthermore, the Torah then states, “VeAtah Tashuv VeShamata BeKol Hashem VeAsita Et Kol Mitzvotav,” “You shall return and listen to the voice of Hashem, and you shall perform all His commandments” (30:8), apparently portraying Bnei Yisrael's order that they will do Teshuvah only after Hashem brings the Yeshuah.
Based on Ramban’s comments, it is possible to interpret this section as a compromise, not a contradiction. Ramban states that the first Teshuvah of Bnei Yisrael, which must take place before the Geulah, is a complete acceptance of Hashem’s Torah. This thought of acceptance immediately triggers the Geulah. Furthermore, it causes the “circumcision of the heart” mentioned in the section. Ramban interprets this to mean help from Hashem to one who has begun to do Teshuvah. With Hashem’s help, the Teshuvah process is completed after the Yeshuah with a second act of Teshuvah. This act of Teshuvah, mentioned in 30:8, contains the additional phrase, “VeAsita Et Kol Mitzvotav,” “And you shall perform all His commandments,” not mentioned in 30:2, because this complete Teshuvah is one not only of thought, but also of action.
This element of “VeAsita Et Kol Mitzvotav” is, in fact, the only significant difference between the Teshuvah of 30:2 and the Teshuvah of 30:8. The Teshuvah of thought is otherwise equal to the Teshuvah of action. Thus, thought alone is enough to fulfill the Pasuk of “Shuvu Eilai” and start the Geulah.
The significance of intent highlighted in Parashat Nitzavim is highlighted even more strongly in the section of Akeidat Yitzchak, read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, almost immediately after Parashat Nitzavim. As Avraham is about to fulfill Hashem’s command by slaughtering his son Yitzchak, a Malach tells him, “Al Tishlach Yadecha El HaNa’ar VeAl Taas Lo Me’umah Ki Atah Yadati Ki Yerei Elokim Atah,” “Do not send forth your hand at the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are God-fearing” (BeReishit 22:12). Many commentators are bothered by this Pasuk, since Hashem’s statement that He “now” knows Avraham is God-fearing implies that Hashem did not know this before the Akeidah. Yakov Danishefsky, a Madrich at NCSY Summer Kollel in 2009, suggested an alternative explanation of the Pasuk based on a Midrash that comments on the Pasuk’s first half. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:7 quoted in Rashi 22:12 s.v. Al Tishlach) comments that after the Malach commands Avraham, “Do not send forth your hand,” Avraham wants to partially fulfill Hashem’s commandment by making a wound in Yitzchak and extracting some blood. Therefore, the Malach commands him, “Nor do anything to him.” The Malach then explains that wounding Yitzchak is unnecessary because even “now,” before Avraham does any action, Hashem knows his intent and realizes he is God-fearing. Thus, “now” does not exclude knowledge of Avraham’s status as God-fearing in the past; rather, it includes knowledge of this status even before Avraham’s action. Just like the intent of Bnei Yisrael do to Teshuvah can cause the Geulah, Avraham’s intent to slaughter Yitzchak causes Hashem to recognize him as God-fearing.
As we are still in Galut, the dispute between Hashem and us still continues. Yet if we accept the compromise in Parashat Nitzavim, all we need to do is take it upon ourselves in thought to do Teshuvah. Then, even before we take the next step of transforming these thoughts into actions, Hashem will hear our prayers of "Shuveinu Elokei Yisheinu" and fulfill his words, “VeAshuv Aleichem”.