Rabbi Daniel Stein
"Perhaps there is amongst you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from Hashem, our God, to go and worship the deities of those nations. Perhaps there is among you a root that produces hemlock and wormwood" (Devarim 29, 17). The Torah juxtaposes in the very same pasuk two individuals who ostensibly seem vastly different from one another. The first has strayed entirely from the ways of the Torah and embraced idol worship whole heartedly. The second merely has an eroded and infected "root." The Ramban explains that this second individual is presently committed to the mitzvos and avodas Hashem, but in the deep recesses of his heart there lies a kernel of doubt and insubordination. However, currently they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The first individual in the pasuk has already abandoned yiddeshkeit completely while the second is a practicing, loyal, and faithful Jew. Why are these two people grouped together? What do they share in common?
Rav Henoch Leibowitz (Majesty of Man), explains that even though presently there might be a great distance between these two individuals, they are both on the same path, bearing an identical trajectory; one might be further down the road than the other, but ultimately they will be united. The Torah is alluding to us that a critical component of our teshuvah process is not only evaluating our previous actions and assessing our current status, but also taking time to consider the path we are on and the direction in which we are heading, because inevitably that will determine our destination. Rav Elya Meir Bloch was once standing with his talmidim on a Chicago train station platform waiting for the Pacemaker to New York. A few feet away, on the other side of the platform stood the Sunshine Express to San Francisco. He asked his talmidim, "How far apart are these two trains?" They hastily conjectured that they were separated by about eight to ten feet. Rav Bloch disagreed, "The two trains are 3,000 miles apart, because one is headed to California, and the other to New York."
This is arguably the unique message of Parshas Nitzavim. Parshas Nitzavim seems to embody a very similar theme to that of Parshas Ki Savo. Both parshiyos convey and underscore the centrality of our covenant - bris with Hashem. They both describe how if we will perform the mitzvos we will be rewarded, and if not we will be punished. However, the Netziv (Haamek Davar) notices a fundamental difference between the two presentations. Parshas Ki Savo focuses primarily on actions, on two possible modes of conduct; either "If you will listen to the voice of Hashem your God, to keep and perform all of His commandments" (28:1) or "If you will not listen to the voice of Hashem your God to keep and perform all of His commandments" (28:15). The lesson of Parshas Ki Savo corresponds to the aspect of teshuvah which demands that we examine our previous actions and identify areas where we can improve.
However, Parshas Nitzavim adds an additional element, another dimension to the covenant, namely that of loving Hashem. As the pesukim state: "I have commanded you this day to love Hashem your God to follow His ways and keep His commandments" (30:16), "To love Hashem your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him" (30:20), and "Hashem will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your children to love Hashem your God" (30:6). The Netziv explains that the Torah is teaching us in Parshas Nitzavim that adherence to the mitzvos is not enough, because if our core commitment to the mission is weak and waning, if our hearts are lacking in love of Hashem, we will be trending off course and ultimately religious decay will undoubtedly ensue. As the pasuk states, "If your heart turns away and does not listen, you will be drawn away and bow down to other gods and serve them" (30:17). Genuine teshuvah demands not only that we evaluate our deeds, but our direction, because if we are headed down the wrong path, the results can be catastrophic.
The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:3) writes, "the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh Hashanah. If one is found righteous, he is sealed for life, if one is found wicked, he is sealed for death. A beinoni, one who is in between, his verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, he is sealed for life, if not, he is sealed for death."
The Lechem Mishnah questions why the beinoni must specifically repent and perform the mitzvah of teshuvah in order to receive a positive judgment on Yom Kippur; after all, once he performs any mitzvah that should tilt the scales in his favor. He explains (and this is elaborated upon by Rav Yitzchak Blazer in his Kochvei Ohr) that the greatest of all sins is squandering the opportunity for change and teshuvah. Therefore, any positive act that is performed by the beinoni will be eclipsed and outweighed by his failure to repent and perform teshuvah. Alternatively, Rav Aryeh Pomeranchek (Emek Bracha), Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichas Mussar), and Rav Ahron Kotler (Mishnas Rebbe Ahron) suggest that the performance of any additional mitzvah will accrue towards the following year, and therefore will be ineffective in altering the previous year's tally. Only the mitzvah of teshuvah has the power to change the past, to rewrite history, and thereby favorably skew the judgement of the previous year.
However, the Meiri (Chibur Hateshuvah), and later Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak), suggest that the Rambam does not view the beinoni as one who is literally caught in the limbo of a formal numerical stalemate between mitzvos and aveiros. For if that were the case, it would presumably be an exceedingly rare occurrence, yet the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4) exhorts us all to view ourselves as beinonim throughout the ten days of repentance and beyond. Rather the Rambam understands the judgment of Rosh Hashanah to be a function not only of our past performance but also of our direction for the future. Therefore, the beinoni represents all those who are wavering or feel conflicted about their religious arc and trajectory. Are we progressing closer towards Hashem or drifting further away? Is our religious commitment intensifying or subsiding? The only mitzvah which can effectively address and impact this aspect of our lives is the introspective soul bearing process of teshuvah, and that is why teshuvah is the only avenue available to the beinoni.
As we stand at the doorstep of Rosh Hashanah and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah we must undertake, individually and collectively, not only to assess the validity of our actions, but also to inspect what lies within our hearts, and honestly ask ourselves, "Where are we headed?" Concerns regarding trajectory and direction should be welcomed and embraced as the indispensable hallmark of authentic avodas Hashem. We are enjoined to respond to the message of Parshas Ki Savo as well as the call of Parshas Nitzavim. We are obliged not only to recommit ourselves to a scrupulous observance of all of the mitzvos, but to reinvest in an honest and unadulterated love of Hashem, and to chart a course for the future based solely on that agenda. May we all be zoche to be successful in this endeavor, and merit as individuals and as a community to have a kesivah vechasima tovah and a gut gebentched yor!