Public Diplomacy… In the Parsha?

One of the big issues that Israel is dealing with today is its image abroad. Everyone seems to see us in the wrong light. Only recently has the Foreign Ministry and various NGOs realized that the way to spread Israel’s positive image is to enable, encourage and promote public diplomacy.

This means that instead of just having official ambassadors and diplomats trying to do all of the country’s bidding, every Israeli needs to pitch in a little, and explain what is really happening here. Whether it’s on social media, university campuses or elsewhere, the diplomacy needs to be crowdsourced.

I stumbled upon this exact strategy in this week’s torah portion.

Moses and the Kohanim, the Levites, spoke to all of Israel saying ‘Be attentive and hear, O Israel: This day you have become a people (am) to Hashem, your God. You shall harken to the voice of Hashem your God…’ (Deuteronomy 27:9-10).

These verses seem puzzling on their own. What is so special about this day? What is the connection to listening to what God has to say? Furthermore, the verses are preceded and followed (in the torah scroll) by paragraph breaks, so they seem isolated.

According to the Netziv of Volozhin (bio here), in his commentary to the Torah, these verses are to be understood in the context of the previous paragraph.In the previous eight verses, God commands the Jews to inscribe the torah on large rocks upon arrival in the land of Israel. The commandment ends with a strange and superfluous line

 “You shall inscribe on the stones all the words of this torah, well clarified.” (Ibid verse 8)

Firstly, it seems to be repeating the commandment to inscribe the torah, which had just been mentioned in verse 3. Even more puzzling are the last two words: well clarified. What do they come to teach us?

Rashi explains that “well clarified” means that the torah was to be inscribed in 70 languages. The Netziv explains that the reason for all of the languages was to show that the values of the torah are global. God wrote about values that are not exclusively applicable to the Jews. These morals range from personal attributes (e.g. generosity, humility) to societal norms (e.g. fair judicial systems, care for the poor and weak).

Now that we have explained the preceding verse, we can set out to understand the key sentences quoted above. When God says that on “this day you have become a people”, he uses the Hebrew word am, commonly translated as ‘nation’ or people. But the Netziv says that am can also mean a diplomatic mission (according to verses in Genesis and Exodus).

Why does God need ambassadors? Because God needs a media to spread the global torah values that were just referred to in the previous verse. God meant for the universal morals in His book to be propagated worldwide, not to remain harbored in the hands of one nation. Therefore the Jews were enlisted on this special day to listen to God, and spread the word.

But which Jews are supposed to be the diplomats? The Netziv writes that originally the job was given to the elder statesmen, the “giants of torah”. But they weren’t supposed to carry the torch forever. In later generations this job would need to be expanded to the people. The entire nation needs to give a hand in spreading the torah values to the nations of the world. Sound familiar?

(The Netziv wrote about the transition from statesmen to Public Diplomacy in the late 19th century, and he based it on subtleties in the verses and on a Gemara in tractate yevamos.)

This can also give a new meaning to the upcoming Rosh Hashana holiday. When you sip your Kiddush wine, imagine you are presenting your credentials, to mark another year of working as a diplomat for Hashem.

About the Author
Yaakov Wolff is a soldier in the IDF. He made Aliyah from Boston to Beit Shemesh in 2007. Before joining the army he studied in Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh. He holds a degree in Middle East Studies from Bar-Ilan University.