The Principle of Choice and the Principle of Teshuva
Summarized by Danny Orenbuch
"In the beit midrash (study-hall) of Rabbeinu Nissim it was once asked, 'Why do we divide the [double] portion of Nitzavim-Vayelekh into two when there are two Shabbatot between Rosh Ha-shana and Sukkot (not counting Yom Kippur), rather than dividing [the double portion of] Mattot-Mas'ei, which are longer?' And he answered, 'Because in the parasha of Nitzavim there are curses with which he cursed Israel, and we wish to conclude them before Rosh Ha-shana.' But this reply is difficult, for we do not count the curses which Moshe Rabbeinu cursed! And furthermore, according to this explanation why do we not read [parashat] Ha'azinu before Rosh Ha-shana, for here too there are curses?... Therefore it seems to me that the reason we divide them is because we want to finish and to read on the Shabbat before Rosh Ha-shana a parasha which makes no mention of curses, in order not to juxtapose curses with Rosh Ha-shana." (Tosafot Megilla 31a, s.v. Kelalot)
According to the second opinion in Tosafot above, our parasha contains no curses but rather, on the contrary, is to be considered as a break from them. Even Rashi who, contrary to the Ramban (who holds that Sefer Devarim is a book of good tidings about appeasement and mercy), believes that this is a book of rebuke, perceives a change in our parasha:
"And a midrash aggada teaches: Why was the parasha of Nitzavim placed next to that of the curses? Because [the nation of] Israel had heard one hundred curses minus two... Their faces fell, and they said: "Who can stand this?!" Moshe Rabbeinu began to appease them: "You are standing (nitzavim) here today" - you have angered God greatly, but He has not destroyed you, and here you are, standing before Him today. And just as He exists today and He darkens and makes light, so he made light for you [in the past], and so will He make light for you in the future..." (Rashi, Devarim 29:12)
Indeed, our parasha, although short, may be considered the "minority which determines the majority" from the point of view of the important principles which it contains. We may perhaps even regard it as the crowning glory of the entire Sefer Devarim.
The first major principle is that of free choice. Even though this has been mentioned previously in the Torah, a concentrated discussion of the topic is presented here. Furthermore, our parasha explicitly presents the choice between the two paths: "See, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil" (Devarim 30:15). Nevertheless, there is a command that we choose the normative path: "And you shall choose life."
Another important principle mentioned in our parasha is that of teshuva (repentance). This idea, too, has already been mentioned. In parashat Naso we are told, "A man or woman who commits any mortal transgression to sin against God, such that that person will be guilty, then they must confess their sin which they did and make full restitution for their sin" (Bamidbar 5:5-7). Earlier in Sefer Devarim, too, in parashat Va'etchanan, we learn: "And you shall return unto the Lord your God, and you shall listen to His voice." (Devarim 4:30)
Clearly, there is a difference between the two descriptions - the one in Sefer Bamidbar and the other in Sefer Devarim - in terms of both background and scope, and both in the procedure of teshuva and in its results and ramifications.
From the point of view of background, Sefer Devarim is speaking of people who are completely cut off and removed from God. So it is that parashat Va'etchanan describes a scene where, "when you give birth to children and grandchildren and you shall have stayed long in the land and shall become corrupt, and you shall make an idol, the likeness of anything, and you shall perform evil in the eyes of the Lord your God to make Him angry;" this describes a situation of idolatry with the purpose of angering God. This is also the background to our parasha - people who were expelled from the land and exiled as a result of the curses (spelled out in the previous parasha, Ki Tavo) which God visits upon them because of their evil ways and deeds. Sefer Bamidbar, on the other hand, deals with the person who happens to stray from the straight path on a particular occasion: one who commits a single transgression for which he seeks to atone.
As regards scope, too, there is a difference. While Sefer Devarim describes a general, national phenomenon, Sefer Bamidbar deals with the individual who sins.
Since the background to teshuva is different in these cases, the process, too, is different. For the person who sinned in one particular instance, it is sufficient to perform a "technical" teshuva consisting of viddui (confession) and a sin-offering, after which he is considered to have atoned for his sin. In Sefer Devarim, which deals with the person who is - as a general state of affairs - distanced and cut off from God, a complete change of personality is required, penetrating his heart and innermost character: "And you shall take it to heart..." (30:1). Furthermore, because he is removed, he is obligated to return: "And you shall return to the Lord your God" (4:30). The effort required of him is also greater: "You shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul" (4:29), "and you shall return unto the Lord your God... with all your heart and with all your soul" (30:2).
The ramifications and reaction on God's part are also different. A person who is so far removed from God needs assistance from Above: "From there the Lord your God will gather you up, and from there will He take you" (30:4); "and the Lord your God will circumcize your hearts..." (30:6). And finally, the happy tidings of teshuva and redemption together: "And the Lord your God will return your captivity and will have mercy on you, and He shall gather you up again from all the nations among which the Lord your God scattered you."
(Originally delivered at Leil Shabbat, Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim 5752.
Translated by Kaeren Fish.)