At first glance, the content of Parshat Nitzavim seems identical to that of the preceding Parshah. Although this Parshah has fewer curses and perhaps fewer blessings than Parshat Ki Tavo, it repeats the same essential elements. Nevertheless, a difference in mood can be discerned, a difference that makes Parshat Nitzavim the more appropriate Parshah to read before Rosh HaShanah.

In Parshat Ki Tavo, the blessings and curses stand opposite one another and create a somber mood, a feeling that there is no way out. By contrast, in Parshat Nitzavim there is a certain optimism that does not exist in Parshat Ki Tavo. Parshat Nitzavim speaks of teshuvah, conveying the message that all is not lost, and that there is a way to set things right. It has a tone of hope that says that there is a way out of the distress, and this hope changes the mood of the entire Parshah.

The curses in Parshat Ki Tavo conclude with the following description: “G‑d will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way that I said you would never see again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as slaves and maids, but there will be no buyer.”1 In Parshat Nitzavim the conclusion is quite different: “When all these things have befallen you – the blessing and the curse…and you will reflect on them…and you will return to G‑d your Lord and obey Him.”2

Parshat Ki Tavo can be summarized as follows: “If you do what is good, you will prosper; but if you do not, you will suffer.” In this ­Parshah, too, there is a similar connection between “life and good, death and evil.”3 But here, there is also the way of teshuvah: “And you will reflect…and you will return to G‑d your Lord.”4 The difference between the parshiyot is the factor of teshuvah.

What is the essence of teshuvah? The fact is that people sometimes make poor decisions, and these decisions often lead to suffering. For example, one might find himself in a difficult situation, and he might decide to relieve himself and his family of their troubles by jumping off the roof. This kind of story does occur; it is unfortunately part of our reality. But what happens if, on his way down, when he reaches the fifth floor, he decides that it was not wise to take this step? The problem is that he has already fallen; he has committed an irreversible act. Correspondingly, one would think that when a person commits a sin, it should be like the person who has jumped off the roof. Remorse in such a case is useless. But because of the existence of teshuvah, an act can become reversible; there is a way to stop in the middle of a fall and turn back the clock.

The Midrash relates the following:

Wisdom was asked: What should be the sinner’s punishment? Wisdom answered: “Evil pursues sinners.”5 Prophecy was asked: What should be the sinner’s punishment? Prophecy answered: “The soul who sins shall die.”6 The Torah was asked: What should be the sinner’s punishment? The Torah answered: “Let him bring a guilt offering, and his sin will be atoned for.” The Holy One, Blessed Be He, was asked: What should be the sinner’s punishment? He answered: “Let him do teshuvah, and his sin will be atoned for.”7

The punishment of death for a sinner is not excessive. One who sins is, by the laws of nature, like one who swallows poison. However, the innovation of teshuvah lies in the possibility of reversing this reality.

Choose life

Parshat Nitzavim contains, besides the element of teshuvah, an additional element that likewise is not found in the preceding Parshah: the element of persuasion. Parshat Ki Tavo establishes the facts, as a physician does: “If you follow my instructions, you will live another three months. If you do otherwise, the consequences will be different.” In Parshat Nitzavim, however, we find, more than once, persuasion to choose one option over the other: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death…Choose life.”8

When Moses tells the People of Israel that the options are life and death, he is merely stating the facts. But then he adds, as good counsel: “Choose life, so that you may live.” Moses says that the people already know the consequences that each path will bring, and the choice between the two is theirs to make. Still, his advice is to choose life. Indeed, our sages themselves pointed out that after Moses shows them what the path to blessing is and what the path to curse is, and sets the two choices against each other, he asks them to choose the good path.9

The same point is found in the case of Joshua as well. Joshua is Moses’ servant, and in a certain respect he is also his complement. Moses and Joshua are often regarded as one unit, sharing a division of labor. There are many things that Moses starts and Joshua finishes, that Moses sets up and Joshua establishes. As a continuation of Moses’ words, Joshua, at the end of his life, suggests to the People of Israel, “G‑d took you out of Egypt, gave you the Torah, and brought you into the Land, and we have reached a state of rest and security. Now, the decision is in your hands: If you want, serve G‑d; if you are loathe to serve G‑d, ‘I and my household will serve G‑d.’”10

Blessing or curse

The Torah speaks of choosing the good, and advises us to choose life. However, when one must implement the choice in reality, it is not always clear which path to choose; distinguishing the blessing from the curse is not always simple. If the reality were clear to us, we would not ­commit so many errors.

Sometimes one makes a decision based on his perception of the reality, and afterward – even if it becomes clear that the decision was made on the basis of mistaken assumptions – he can no longer withdraw the decision that he made. One chooses what he thinks is a ­blessing, and he ends up being totally subservient to it, even though it has already become a curse for him.

In other instances, the question of whether something is a blessing or a curse is completely subjective. For one person it could be a curse, but for someone else it could be a blessing. It could be that now it is a curse, but at another time it will be a blessing.

In all these matters, one’s perspective is often the deciding factor. The Talmud relates of Nachum Ish Gamzu that no matter what befell him, he would declare, “This, too (gam zu), is for the best.” Even when he was without hands and legs, he continued to say, “This, too, is for the best.”11 One can lead a perfect life, and yet his whole life might feel like a curse, depending on his perspective. Thus, the choice between blessing and curse is partly subjective: How does one regard the events that transpire in one’s life?

It is common to bless someone that he should have G‑d-fearing children who will become great sages. However, the nature of such a blessing depends on the perspective of its recipient. Some would rejoice upon receiving such a blessing and would respond, “The same to you!” However, others – particularly those who are not themselves G‑d-fearing individuals – might become distraught upon receiving such a blessing, regarding it as a terrible curse.

When one encounters something of this nature, one must look at it, scrutinize it, and consider what may result from it. It often happens that it is the individual who decides whether it is a blessing or a curse; it is not a matter of knowing the future. If one decides to accept something as a curse, it will only grow worse, while if one decides to accept it as a blessing, it will fulfill that initial perception.

There was once a captain who, on a voyage, saw various lumps floating near his ship. He drew them out of the water, but they stunk up the whole ship, so he threw them back into the water. What he did not know was that these lumps were actually ambergris, an incredibly rare and valuable substance secreted by sperm whales that is used in some perfumes. When one possesses such a lump knowing that it is a blessing, it means that one was fortunate enough to happen upon a great treasure. But if one does not know what this lump is, it seems worthless. One throws it back into the ocean and is happy to have gotten rid of it.

This is a very significant point regarding the Torah as well, since the entire Torah can be considered a blessing or a curse. We have 613 mitzvot; this might seem like a huge number – who can meet so many requirements? This perspective turns the whole Torah into a curse. However, an alternative perspective is found in the Mishnah: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, wanted to give Israel merit; He therefore gave them a large amount of Torah and mitzvot.”12

Is Jewish identity a source of joy and pride, or a source of shame and disgrace that one tries to get rid of? The brilliant poet and apostate Heinrich Heine said, “Judaism is not a religion; it is a curse.” When one knows that he will never be rid of his Judaism, he sometimes experiences this as a terrible curse that dogs him his whole life. In his own eyes, he was born with a kind of genetic defect. By contrast, the Maggid of Kozhnitz would say, “If I were sure that I was definitely descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I would put aside my hat and perform the Cossack dance in the street, for having this merit.”

Blessing and curse do not necessarily exist in two separate worlds; sometimes they are in the same place. The Talmud states that the ­tzaddikim in Paradise sit and enjoy the splendor of the shechinah.13 In Paradise, there is no eating or drinking, only enjoyment of the Torah. There are people who deserve to be sent to Gehenna, but should really be sent to Paradise. For some people, an eternity of constant Torah study would be the greatest form of torture.

To choose life is to see things from the right perspective, to choose the good aspect in everything. It is not just the question of whether or not to be a Jew, whether or not to keep the mitzvot. One can decide to be a good Jew and yet perceive one’s Judaism as a kind of curse: Against one’s will one lives, against one’s will one dies, and against one’s will one is a Jew. There is nothing worse than perceiving the Torah as an inherited burden, because there is absolutely nothing that one can do about it.

This distinction is emphasized by the Ari in his interpretation of the passage, “All these curses will come upon you, pursue you, and overtake you…instead of (tachat) serving G‑d your Lord with joy and with gladness over the abundance of all things. You will therefore serve your enemies.”14

The simple explanation of the passage – as we find in Targum Onkelos – is: Instead of serving G‑d with joy, you did not keep the mitzvot, and therefore all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.

The Ari, however, explained that the word tachat should actually be translated as “because.” That is to say, because you did not serve G‑d with joy, “you will serve your enemies.” Punishment comes not because you did not serve G‑d, but because you did not serve Him with joy and with gladness; it comes because you accepted the Torah as a punishment and as a curse.

“Choose life,” therefore, relates not only to the choice itself, but also to the manner in which one chooses.

“How great is Your goodness”

There are good things in life whose excellence can be conveyed to others by explanation, and there are things that one can learn only directly, through personal experience. When one is able to see the goodness of G‑d – “How great is Your goodness that You have hidden away for those who fear You”15 – it is a personal experience that cannot be taught or communicated to others.

Every Shabbat, we recite a similar verse: “Taste and see that G‑d is good.”16 Taste cannot be received from others. In order to perceive it, one must taste it himself. This is a fundamental point within the Jewish experience. Although one who has experienced the delight of the Torah can forget part of his learning, he can never forget the pleasure, the taste, and the feeling of that experience.

There are certain tastes that everyone can recognize; a child generally does not have to be persuaded to eat candy. But there are some things that require sophistication to appreciate. A child must grow in maturity to appreciate the taste of a salty dish. This is not because the dish is not tasty. Rather, tastes change, and in order to appreciate certain tastes, one must first grow up a little.

Similarly, few people can appreciate complex music. Everyone, except perhaps a deaf person, can listen to and enjoy a simple melody. But to enjoy music that is complex, like a symphony, one must first learn to appreciate it. It could be that after one learns to enjoy such music, he will no longer be able to listen to simple music; it will be too vulgar for him. This is true not only of relatively abstract things like music; it is also true of good wine and many other things as well.

When the Torah says that we have before us “life and good,” sometimes a shell must be cracked to reveal the good. Sometimes one must chew quite a lot before the good can be tasted. Sometimes one must educate himself, and many years might pass until one can discern what is truly good. Things that are obviously good are easily perceived, but to perceive the things that are truly good, one must develop this skill over time.

“Choose life”: To get into the matter, to absorb it, to gain an inner understanding of it, one must make a great effort, an effort aimed at experiencing the spiritual flavor of life.