“Ezra legislated that the curses enumerated in Parshas Ki Savo be read prior to Rosh Hashana so that the year may end along with its curses,” the Talmud teaches. Nonetheless, Tosafot adds, we read Parshas Nitzavim on the Shabbos immediately preceding Rosh Hashana to serve as a buffer, so that we do not go from curses directly to Rosh Hashana.
I’d like to suggest an additional reason for reading Nitzavim before Rosh Hashana. The Tur, in his commentary on Rosh Hashana, writes, “Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Yehoshua taught: Who is like the Jewish nation? Normally, one who is on trial for his life dons black, somber clothes, and does not shave or groom himself, because of the uncertainty of the verdict. In sharp contrast, however, Israel acts differently. They dress in white garments, and shave and groom themselves prior to their day of judgment. Moreover, they eat and drink and exhibit happiness and confidence on Rosh Hashana, knowing full well that Hashem will provide a miracle on their behalf.” Where does this optimism come from? The Alter of Kelm explains that there are two levels of judgment on Rosh Hashana. The Jewish nation is judged collectively as a people, and each person is judged individually.
Regarding our national verdict, we are assured that Hashem will always judge us favorably, for we read in Parshas Vayelech that the Torah “will not be forgotten from the mouth of their offspring.” The survival and continuity of our people is a continuing theme in the messages of our prophets. Torah and the Jewish people will survive, hence the optimism on Rosh Hashana. At the same time, each individual should experience fear and trepidation of the forthcoming day of judgment. His personal fate is less assured. How will he fare as an individual?
The Alter of Kelm points out that the first verse in Parshas Nitzavim addresses all of Israel: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing here this day, all of you,” Moshe declares to the Jewish nation. He then identifies the various groupings within the nation; everyone from “your elders” to “your water-drawers” is represented. All of these groups together make up kulchem – all of you.
Therefore, suggests the wise teacher, in order to ensure personal survival, one should attach himself to the community by contributing to it. Just as in politics we are familiar with the “coattails effect” whereby lesser known candidates ride the crest of others’ success, similarly as the community is granted success and pardon for the forthcoming year, one who is needed by the community will also be included in its success.
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin