Once on an airplane I was sitting next to a man from Belgium, and we did our best to converse despite some linguistic problems. Looking at my yarmulke, he determined that I was Jewish, and then he declared:
“The Jews are very smart. You know why?”
“They cover their heads. Keeps the brains warm.”
Well, I was able to control myself and did not laugh. His respect was sincere, for whatever reasons.
Reading Deuteronomy chapter 4, we find some other reasons — arguably far more compelling ones — for respect and admiration from the non-Jewish world. “See,” says Moses, “I taught you rules of conduct that you should observe in the land you are going to possess. Keep them and do them, for they are your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of all the nations, who will say: Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” Our principles, our “mishpatim” can earn us our neighbors respect, IF we use those principles to guide our lives.
And Moses continues: “For who is a great nation that has G-d so close by, like our G-d whenever we call Him?” Prophet or plebeian, Elijah or Tevye, no Jew needs an intermediary to contact the Divine.
“And who is a great nation that has laws and principles as righteous as this Torah that I set before you today?” Who indeed. Laws like “take care of the land and it will nourish you.” Principles like “the righteous of other nations have a place in the World to Come.” Rules of conduct like “you shall have honest weights and measures.”
Historys blows make us acutely aware of the outside worlds hostility. We know about anti-Semitism, prejudice, discrimination, crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, Koranic curses, Holocaust deniers. That is not the whole world.
We can lose sight of the other side of the coin. There is respect out there, even some admiration. It can come from unexpected sources. Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Oskar Schindler — or my Belgian airline passenger. It can also come from an insightful pope, from pro-Israel Evangelists, or from that anonymous Gentile traveller who proclaimed that the human race is one body and the Jews are its head.
Lets be grateful for the friends we have. We need them all.