In this week’s parasha, Va’Etchanan, Moses reminds the Israelites of the laws and statutes that God has commanded them to follow. Special emphasis is placed on the importance of continuing to perform them after Moses’ death and after the conquest of the land of Canaan. Without Moses’s charismatic leadership, our people would need to find other motivations for obedience to God’s laws. Moses gives us one: “You shall keep them and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations, that they will hear all of these statutes and they will say, behold a wise and discerning people is this great nation” (Deuteronomy 4:6). That is, God’s laws are wise, and if we follow them, other people will consider us to be wise. ...Of course, “You Jews are so wise for not eating pork,” said no one, ever. The Torah’s claim does not seem to match reality. Further, how, many Jews have ever said, “Every fall, I am commanded to march around the synagogue with leaves and a citrus fruit. God’s laws are so wise!”?
One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is the Talmudic approach. The Talmud (Shabbat 75a) asks, “What is wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations?” and answers: learning astronomy (my apologies to Humanities people). Learning to calculate the motions of the sun and moon is in fact a commandment, or at least a necessary preparation for performing the commandment of counting the months and leap years. The context, and especially the use of “them” implying multiple commandments, makes it difficult to accept that our verse is only about the commandment to learn astronomy.
Maimonides (12th Century Spain and Egypt), in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:31), says that all of the commandments are wise and beneficial. It is on us to figure out how. However, this explanation seems lacking--the verse says that the other nations will hear our statutes and laws and consider us wise. It doesn’t say that they will read the 613 PhD theses written by Jewish professors on the wisdom of each of the commandments and then say, “Oh, yes, those are wise, and the Jews must be such a wise and discerning people.” So how do the commandments themselves demonstrate their (and our) wisdom?
The Rashba (Solomon ben Aderet, 13th Century Spain), has a third solution which, I think, helps to make sense of the Talmud’s solution as well as Maimonides’. The Rashba teaches that we must trust that all of the Torah’s laws are wise. However, only some appear wise. Neither we, nor others observing us, have the infinite intelligence to understand the reasoning behind every last commandment. But some commandments do seem obviously wise, and he lists four examples: charity, honoring parents, refraining from theft, and praising God. When we perform these commandments properly, both others observing us, as well as our own doubting inner monologue, will notice that some of the laws are wise. After recognizing that some laws are wise, we may then come to trust that the other laws must be wise as well. Taking the Rashba’s perspective, the Talmud is not claiming that Moses is simply motivating us to learn astronomy.
Rather, the Talmud suggests that Moses is instructing us that, when we establish ourselves in the Land and are observed by outside nations, we should emphasize those commandments which line up with the values and actions that the other nations consider to be wise. In Talmudic times, it was astronomy. In the Rashba’s time, it was charity. Perhaps, in Maimonides’ time, it was learning Torah by turning it into a philosophically complete system. If we focus on emphasizing the commandments which are obviously wise in our own day and age, and use our appreciation of those commandments to motivate us to perform the other commandments with vervor, the people around us will begin to trust that all of the commandments are wise.
Of course, as the Rashba points out, this is also effective against our own internal doubts (our yetzer ha’ra). Personally, I do not have the intelligence to see the wisdom in every commandment. But I do have the wisdom to see it in some. Following the Rashba, I can start by trying to perform those commandments, and through them, begin to create a relationship with the Torah. From there, I can learn to grow and trust the system, so much so that I come to assiduously perform more and more of the commandments, knowing that they too must be wise, even if I have not yet come to understand the wisdom. Over time, I will come to see wisdom in parts of the Torah I previously thought lacked it. Of course, it can go the other way too: over time, I might stop seeing wisdom in parts of the Torah where I originally saw it. However, once I have developed trust for the Torah, I will eventually come to embrace all of it, even as I continue to try--and sometimes fail--to see the wisdom in all of it. Hopefully, so too will the people who see me practicing Torah. Of course, in order to convince myself and others through my actions that the Torah is wise, I must approach the Torah not with the haughtiness of practicing a system I trust to be wise, but with the humility of not having the wisdom to yet fully understand the system. And when a part of Torah continually fails the wisdom test both for myself and others, I must be open to assuming I was not understanding the Torah correctly. With such a relationship with Torah, I pray others can one day look at me and say, “What a wise and discerning person he is.” May we all merit to find parts of the Torah we find to be wise, and may we use those parts to help us develop a relationship with the entire Torah.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb. Joel Goldstein