Rabbi Benjamin Yudin
The opening verse of parshas Nitzavim is understood on many levels. Rashi understands it as a source of consolation. The Torah in parshas Ki Tavo enumerated ninety-eight curses, and the very listening to them conveys fear of extinction and annihilation; therefore, the Torah says, despite the punishments and catastrophes "atem nitzavim hayom"- you are standing erect today. The Jewish nation endures and will endure forever.
The Zohar understands the word "hayom"- today, to refer to the day of Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud Megillah (31B) teaches that Ezra instituted that Parshas Nitzavim be read as a buffer between the curses of Ki Tavo and the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The Alter of Kelm, citing the Tur at the beginning of the laws of Rosh Hashanah in the name of Rabi Chanina and Rabi Yehoshua, sees a great lesson in the word "kulchem"- the entire nation, as a modifier of "nitzavim". Ordinarily an individual on trial for his life will not be concerned regarding his personal appearance before the court. He will not necessarily shave or get a haircut, nor dress in any other garments but black. In sharp contrast, Am Yisroel gets haircuts, dons white clothing, and eat and drink Yom Tov meals as they know Hashem will perform a miracle on their behalf.
Where does this state of optimism come from? The Alter of Kelm explains that each individual indeed should worry and enter Rosh Hashanah in a state of personal fear and trepidation. Regarding his personal fate this forthcoming year in the areas of health, family tranquility and prosperity, he has no assurance and guarantee that what was will necessarily continue to be. But one thing he can be absolutely assured of and guaranteed: the Jewish nation as a people will survive, and play a significant role in the unfolding of world history.
The way for the individual, therefore, to overcome or at least assuage their personal fears is to connect themselves to the Klal- to the community- to the Jewish nation. Kulchem is the answer! The more an individual is needed by the community - he does not only study Torah, but is part of a Torah study group; the more he encourages others to participate, the more essential he is to the group - the merits of the Klal will encompass and embrace him. This is true in regard to his gemilus chasadim- his involvement in various gemachs, societies that assist neighbors in all different ways, raises his stature from that of individual to member of Klal. Even one's tefillah, if they are an integral part of the minyan- contribute not only financially but experientially, by his kavanah- concentration and seriousness of purpose - his personal station and position becomes upgraded, and hence he is "nitzavim" on Rosh Hashanah thanks to the coat-tail effect of the guaranteed survival of the Jewish nation.
We begin this Saturday night in the Ashkenazi community the recitation of Selichos. This too fits very comfortably with Parshas Nitzavim. Our parsha speaks of the phenomenon of Teshuva in perek 30, and Selichos is based on the foundation of Teshuva. To the Rambam, our Torah reading is a Divine prediction that the Jewish nation will repent.
The essence of Selichos is not to plead before Hashem for mercy, by claiming that after all "I'm sorry, we are frail and mortal, let bygones be bygones". We believe that He only asks of us what we can definitely do and fulfill. The essence of Selichos is found in Rosh Hashanah (17B), where R' Yochanan taught that following the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem Himself enveloped Himself in a tallis, as a shaliach tzibur (chazzan), and recited the 13 Middos - Attributes of Hashem. He taught that when the Jewish People will be in need of forgiveness, they should "ya'asu - perform" before Me this order of attributes. The commentaries highlight the fact that it does not say "recite" before Me these attributes, but "perform", implying a substantive act; man is to resolve to change. This is the essence of Selichos, articulating the resolve but also pledging oneself to perform the 611th mitzvah of "v'halachta b'drachav"- to emulate His attributes. As He is kind, compassionate and slow to anger, so will I endeavor to be.
The Medrash in Parshas Noach sheds illustrates Hashem's attribute of patience. On the verse that Hashem smelled the sweet aroma, "rai'ach ni'cho'ach", of Noah's offering, the medrash teaches He smelled Avraham being thrown into the furnace, and Chananel, Mishael and Azaryah being cast by Nebuchadnezar into the great furnace. The commentary Maasei Hashem explains this challenging medrash. Given that Hashem is incorporeal, what does it mean that He "smelled" and savored the Korban? He explains that the sense of smell is different from the other senses. Without seeing or touching the object one can often identify the source of the fragrance from a distance. One can stand outside the home Erev Shabbos or Erev Yom Tov and smell and anticipate the delicacies. Similarly, Hashem saw in the future the sacrifice and Kiddush Hashem of Avraham and the other tzaddikim and thereby decided not to destroy the world again.