SPARK OF THE WEEK

5753 - #9

"So guard them and fulfil them for that is your wisdom and your insight in the eyes of the nations who will hear all these statutes [chukim] and will say: It is after all a wise and understanding people, this great nation" Devarim 8:6. (trans. from Isaac Levy based on German translation of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch)

Proper observance of Torah will result in the recognition by the world of the genius of Torah. The corollary of this idea however, seems to be problematic. It would seem that the perception of the world can be a yardstick to our performance of Torah. If the nations of the world do not recognize us as "a wise and understanding people" does it imply that our observance is not up to standard? Even more fundamental, though, is the question of common sense (see Spark of the Week numbers 3 and 5). How can we rely upon the judgement of "chacham v'navon", wise and understanding, of the nations of the world when the Torah represents a totally different system of Divine Knowledge that is beyond human reason?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Kol Ram, volume 3, page 263 poses this question in the following manner:

"[The verse] is problematic for there are many statutes [chukim] for which we do not know the reasons and the nations of the world laugh because of them and do not see in this the wisdom of Israel as Rashi explains in parshat Chukkot [Rashi, Bamidbar 19:2].

Rav Moshe's question is most powerful in that our verse in V'etchanan actually stresses chukim, the laws beyond human reason. How can the nations of the world thereby see the genius of Torah?

This question would seem to be the underlying motivation behind many of the commentaries on this verse. What exactly is it that the nations will see that will yield this conclusion? One approach is that they will see that Torah works. Malbim, Devarim 8:7 states that the nations will see that G-d oversees the Jewish people's prayers, indicating that Am Yisrael must be doing something right. The very fact that what they are doing is so different also serves to demonstrate this unique knowledge (see also Torah Temima quoting T.Y. Brachot 9:1). Rav Moshe's own answer is that the nations will see that even as regards societal law and order, Jewish law yields better results. The reason for this is that the Jewish motivation for mishpatim, the laws that are understandable, is similar to their motivation for chukim -- to do the Will of G-d. Even though the nations of the world may not know why, and in fact may find some behaviours ridiculous, they will be impressed with the results. Evaluation of results in this regard, would seem to have some validity within the Torah system.

A second approach is that what we have termed common sense or our own ethical perception does have a place within our understanding of Torah. Ibn Ezra, Devarim 4:5-7, states that the nations of the world will recognize the genius of Torah for the essence of all the mitzvot is understood by the wise person who knows why it was given. See also Sforno 4:7,8 and Chacham Sofer, Torat Moshe, V'Etchanan d.h. u'shmartem where he warns that this positive impression by the nations to the "revealed" reasons, should not make us lose sight of the essential reasons on the level of nistar, the "hidden." Details of mitzvot may be beyond explanation or common sense, but the overall package, at least, presents a system that would be deemed "wise and understanding" when properly functioning. One may wish to see Rabbi Shubert Spero, Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition, chapter 4, to view how an approach of this nature will deal with akeidat Yitzchak and the concept that Torah is above such evaluation.

A third approach is that the nations will be impressed with the process of Torah study. Ntziv, HaEmek Davar, Devarim 4:6-8 states that the nations of the world will be impressed with how the Jewish nation is able to derive so much knowledge from their analysis of Torah. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch argues that what impresses the nations is that Torah -- the study of "the truth and harmony of life" -- is the essential science and art of our nation.

Compassion, loving, caring, giving, sacrificing -- these are usually the terms used in praising the accomplishments of a religion. The verse however does not state that Am Yisrael will be described in these terms. True, the nation will have righteous laws but the nation is considered wise and understanding because it has these laws. This is most interesting; when people think of Mother Theresa, they describe her not as a wise person who acts this way, but as a religious and compassionate person who acts this way. Yet B'nei Yisrael, because of their religious connection (verse 7) and righteous laws (verse 8), will be described not as compassionate or religious but "wise and understanding."

This is what I think ultimately is behind Rav Hirsch's contention. The nations of the world may not necessarily be impressed with everything we do. Some things may be perceived to be nonsensical. With some halachot, the nations of the world may actually take issue with the ethics of Torah and to these perceptions of the world, we are not necessarily bound. However, all would agree that there is no other nation so devoted to the investigation of these issues, no other nation whose arts, sciences, and culture is the investigation of and grappling with these issues. This devotion to thought stands out most with chukim which one would think would not be subject to intellectual investigation but, as part of Torah, we nonetheless delve into with our minds. For that, even the nations of the world must declare: "a wise and understanding people."

It is because of our study of Torah that we can distinguish ourselves; but we must meet the challenge of maintaining Torah on the highest level so that, thereby, all can see its genius.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


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2002 NISHMA