There’s an easy-to-miss comment in this week’s parasha that, when you stop to think about it, is very difficult:
What does it mean, ושמרתם ועשיתם כי הוא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים? We should keep the Torah because other people think that the Torah is the fount of wisdom? Rashi explains that it means that if we obey the Torah, we will be considered wise:
But that’s still problematic. We should keep the Torah because—כי—we will be considered wise? Why does the opinion of the world matter? If לעיני העמים the Torah was a pack of arbitrary nonsense, would that absolve us from obeying it? I tell my kids when they argue with each other that people find it very difficult to be right. We always need other people to validate our opinions. That’s why comments on the internet are so emotional: it’s not that I feel a responsibility to make sure you have the right opinion; it’s that I am not secure in my opinion if you don’t agree with me.
But that is clearly the wrong attitude. The כלי יקר puts a negative spin on it, that we need the reassurance that we will not be mocked when we keep the Torah:
But that is still problematic, for two reasons. There is a specific halacha to obey despite any mocking we experience:
And what does it mean to say שמרתם ועשיתם כי הוא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים? Even if ה׳ is reassuring us that the nations will not mock us, how can that be the reason for keeping the חקים ומשפטים? Maybe it removes a reason not to keep them, but this seems like a positive cause. We keep the mitzvot because the nations find them wise!
The Ramban points us in another direction. The opinion of the nations matters, not because of its effect on us, but because of the effect of the Torah on them:
The goal is for Israel as a people in Israel the land to be the “light unto the nations”; לעשות כן בקרב הארץ. That should be the purpose of our existence, and of our dwelling in the land. The implication, as stated in the following psukim, is that if we do not keep the חקים ומשפטים, we will lose the privilege of living in the land. And there’s a message to us, in these days after Tisha B’Av. If we fail in that mission, the mission does not go away but it puts the onus on each of us as individuals. As the Gemara says:
How can we say the purpose of גלות is to proselytize? Exile is a punishment, and we aren’t supposed to encourage conversion! The Marasha explains:
Rabbi Zev Leff of Aish Hatorah quotes the Netziv:
There’s an interesting twist that relates to our purpose as a role model for the world:
Rav Leff continues:
And when we fulfill out roles as individuals, we will אי״ה be given the opportunity to fulfill it as a nation, in ארץ ישראל.