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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Va'etchanan

Parashat Ve'etchanan

The Makings of a Wise Nation

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In some of the Torah’s most moving passages, our parasha describes the connection between Hashem and His nation. It mentions that when we cling to Hashem, we are successful and that we are a great nation because He is close to us whenever we call out to Him (Devarim 4: 4,7). By clinging to the study and observance of His statutes and judgments (chukim u’mishpatim) we become a great nation (ibid.:8). As a result, the nations of the world are prompted to declare that we are a knowledgeable, wise, and great nation. But since we are a nation that "dwells alone" (Bamidbar 23:9) why do we care what the nations think of us?

The Seforno explains based on the context of the p’sukim. Since the nations see our closeness with Hashem, if they will not be impressed by our wisdom, it will be a chillul Hashem (desecration of His Name). Note what impresses the nations. They hear the Torah’s statutes and see our adherence to them. The Kli Yakar points out that the nations knew they were interested only in pursuing wealth and power and realized that Bnei Yisrael were involved in the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.

The Torah’s apparent interest that the nations be impressed with our wisdom has actually been one of the focal points of different philosophies on the proper curriculum for religious Jews. Those who believe in the importance of a secular education point to these p’sukim as mandating that we at least hold our own in science and other fields of wisdom. While centuries ago it was possible to be wise in the nations’ eyes by understanding Torah alone, now that the nations have learned wisdom, we may not lag. Those who take a "Torah only" approach can respond in one of two ways. Either the impression of the nations is secondary to the mitzva to study Torah, or the nations can see our wisdom if we delve into Torah seriously and profoundly enough.

It is also interesting to note how the chukim (laws whose reasons are not apparent) and the mishpatim (logical mitzvot) coincide. One would think that chukim would not be impressive at all. In fact, idol worshippers have plenty of chukim, and we are told to stay away from them (Vayikra 18:3). The Kli Yakar explains that it is the combination of the two areas that is so impressive. Many social and religious systems have superstitious practices. However, when the nations see how Bnei Yisrael dedicate themselves to logic, they realize that their chukim must be Divine and have hidden layers of profound substance. Many nations have systems to keep law and order, and this is a practical concern. However, the nations see that within the same system of Torah and mitzvot, the mystical is found side by side with legal, monetary systems. Thus, they realize that the logical is a matter of holiness to us, not just a pragmatic concern.

May Hashem’s wisdom shine on us through the Torah, which He gave us as a conduit for it.


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