INSIGHT
5769 - #36

V’etchanan

THE PERCEPTION OF THE NATIONS

 

            In the aftermath of the events that recently transpired in New Jersey, one may find it most interesting – and, perhaps, most appropriate – that, in the opening verses of this week’s parsha, V’etchanan, we find statements regarding how the Jewish nation, ideally, should be seen by the nations of the world.1 Two concepts emerge from this presentation in the Torah. One is that it would seem to be informing us of some value in the system(s) of evaluation of the nations. Why would it matter to us if the peoples of the world viewed our nation in a positive light if their method of evaluation was one that we did not respect? Second, it would seem to be directing us to be concerned about our standing in the community of nations. To accomplish the overall Torah objective, it would seem that we must be a nation that is respected within the world. Both of these concepts would seem to have been challenged by the events in New Jersey.

            Of course, the actions of a few individuals do not represent the entire nation. Yet, the question can still be asked: to what extent did these actions reflect a weakness in the fabric of our nation? Did these individuals undertake this behaviour solely because of their criminal desires or were they otherwise not concerned with violating the laws of the land, this non-Jewish country’s presentation of its moral yardstick? If the latter, we may wonder to what extent this attitude, in contra-distinction of the verses noted above, permeates through the nation. Yet, there would also seem to be sources that imply just the opposite, that we should not be concerned with how the non-Jewish world sees us, at least, in certain times or circumstances. Some of these sources seem to indicate that we should even expect, in properly following Torah, to be critiqued by these nations. This may somewhat explain why there may be this disregard for the laws of the land yet, it still does not justify it. The reality is that there would seem to be, within the sources, contradictory messages regarding how we should view the ethical or moral yardsticks employed by those outside the parameters of Torah. Yet, as with all matters within Torah where there may seem to be contradictory messages, our task is to find the third path, the greater understanding, that solves the apparent contradiction.2 The Torah teaching on how we should view the moral yardsticks of the non-Jewish world is actually, most complex but it, clearly, still does not deny that there is some level of respect that we must afford them.3

            Aside from the question of how we are to view the standards by which the nations of the world view and evaluate us, this very fact that we are to be concerned about their perceptions of our people, itself, demands investigation. Even if these nations were to apply the yardstick of Torah, why should we be concerned about how they view us?4 A review of the reasons presented for why we must be concerned about our image in the world would seem to indicate a variety of different reasons. The reason of eiva5 implies a concern that negative perceptions of the Jewish People by others could result in harmful consequences to our nation. Within this perspective, caring for how other nations view the Jewish People would seem to simply be of a practical nature, in our best interest. This is the way some also understand the concept of darchei shalom,6 that we take precautions in the interest of peace simply to protect ourselves. Others, though, understand this directive in a more positive light, as advocating the very value of peace between Klal Yisrael and the other nations. Within this perspective, being concerned with how others view us is not simply of a practical nature but reflects a desired ideal.

            Our verses from V’etchanan would seem to not only support such a view but extend it. It is not only a concern for peace that must motivate us in our relations with others but also the very demand that we present a positive image that must motivate us. In many ways, this concept has halachic expression in the concern for chilul Hashem which informs us that it is not just our image that is to be our worry but also the very image of God. Our actions reflect on the Almighty and we are to be apprehensive lest we profane the Name of God through another viewing Him negatively because of our behaviour. While different definitions of chilul Hashem may reflect different understandings of the negative perception that we are to avoid creating, the necessary conclusion is that we are to be concerned about how the nations of the world view God. And we are to recognize that how these nations view the God of Torah reflects and is reflected by how they view us who are seen as abiding by these laws of Torah.

            The question still remains: why should this be our concern? Why would God be concerned by how the nations of the world view Him and His Chosen People? It may be just a factor of the honour that is due to Him. But why is God concerned about His honour? I would contend that it reflects the ultimate goal of Hashem. There are so many sources that point to the ultimate goal of Torah as engulfing the entire world in the knowledge of God. Our mission would thus have external significance. We must positively affect the nations of the world. To do so, no doubt, would demand that these nations see us as distinctive and the God Who directs our behaviour as special. When the Torah, thus, tells us that the nations of the world will see us, properly observing Torah, as a great and wise nation, it is nor just informing us of potential praise but also a real responsibility. We have a place in the world. It is our duty to strive to occupy that lofty yet demanding place.

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Footnotes

1 See Devarim 4:6-8. While the first verse is specific in describing how, with the observance of mitzvot, the nations of the world will describe Am Yisrael most positively, the fact that Israel will be praised by the nations of the world can also be understood within the context of the latter two verses as well. See, further, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch..

2.See, further, the last principle in the famous Braita of Rabbi Yishmael, Introduction of Sifra which is found at the beginning of the Shacharit service,

3 We have previously investigated this issue in Spark of the Week 5753-9 which is available on the Nishma website at http://www.nishma.org/articles/insight/spark5753-9.htm. See, also, Defining a Chilul Hashem, Nishma Insight 5756-1 which is also available on the Nishma website at http://www.nishma.org/articles/update/update5756-1.htm#CHILUL.

4 This may actually be part of a greater question of why we should be concerned with any perception of another; aside of course, from HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Yet, there are many sources that inform us that we must be concerned about the perceptions of others, individuals and communities. This broader question, however, is beyond the parameters of this Insight.

5 See Encyclopedia Talmudit 1:492, Eiva, Bein Yisrael L’Nachri.

6 See Encyclopedia Talmudit 7:622, Darchei Sholom, B’Yachus L’Goy.

(c) Nishma, 2009

   


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