In today's parsha there is a rather remarkable statement. Moses, in the course of his long speech, gives a justification for the children of Israel to follow the commandments: "For that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations, so that, when they hear all these statutes, they will say: `Surely a wise and understanding nation is this great nation'" (Deut. 4:6). This seems to be saying that we should observe the commandments so as to impress the nations around us, and is rather different from the contrary advice that we often hear, which is that we should perform the mitzvos notwithstanding the opinions (and even derision) of the people around us. How can we reconcile these two viewpoints?
Think of a school classroom. Those children who perform badly will generally be failed and held back. But suppose that the whole class does badly! They won't fail everyone. More likely, they will fire the teacher!
Suppose now that the whole world is becoming increasingly immoral. It struck me that perhaps we, the Jews, should be held responsible for that - we are supposed to be a "light unto the nations"! We are a teacher whose whole class has failed! What should we do about this?
In Pirke Avos it is written: "He [R' Chanina ben Dosa] used to say: Anyone who is liked by his fellow men is liked by G-d; anyone who is not liked by his fellow men, is not liked by G-d" (3:13, trans. Birnbaum). Now this seems strange -- we all know that many people are liked by their fellows because they perform popular (but not necessarily noble) actions or because they make flattering statements, and other people are disliked because they refuse to stoop to such things. So what could this mishna mean?
I want to suggest that it means that anyone who is sufficiently liked by G-d (by virtue of being a tzaddik) develops thereby a certain personality which is admired by other people, regardless of what he might or might not say or do.
Many of us have had the experience of being in the same room as someone who impresses us favorably merely by his presence. (This is often the case with a tzaddik.) We feel that we are in the presence of an exceptional personality.
It is recorded that whenever the saintly Rabbi Joseph Chaim Sonnenfeld used to walk from his home to the synagogue or house of study in Jerusalem, the Arabs in the market would rise as he walked by. They could sense that there was something special about him!
This is what I believe the verse from the Torah portion quoted above means. It is not that we should try to impress the people around us by our performance of mitzvos -- they might very well laugh at our observance of kashrus, or tefillin, for example. However, as a result of performing such mitzvos, our characters will undergo an improvement, and it is this that will cause the people of the world to say: "Surely a wise and understanding nation is this great nation". In this way we can fulfill our task of being a light unto the nations.