Embedded in this week’s parshah are two of the most fundamental commands of Judaism – commands that touch on the very nature of Jewish identity: “Do not desecrate My holy name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 22:32).
The two commands are respectively the prohibition against desecrating God’s name (Chillul Hashem) and the positive corollary (Kiddush Hashem) that we are commanded to sanctify God’s name. What are these commands and what do they mean?
First we must understand the concept of “name” as it applies to God. A name is how we are known to others. God’s “name” is therefore His standing in the world. Do people acknowledge Him, respect Him, honor Him?
The commands of Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem locate that responsibility in the conduct and fate of the Jewish people. This is what Isaiah meant when he said: “You are my witnesses, says God, that I am God” (Isaiah 43:10).
The God of Israel is the God of all humanity. He created the universe and life itself. He made all of us – Jew and non-Jew alike – in His image. He cares for all of us. “His tender mercies are on all His works” (Psalms 145:9).
Yet the God of Israel is radically unlike the gods in which the ancients believed, and the reality in which today’s scientific atheists believe. He is not identical with nature. He created nature. He is not identical with the physical universe. He transcends the universe. He is not capable of being mapped by science: observed, measured, quantified. He is not that kind of thing at all. How then is He known?
The radical claim of Torah is that He is known, not exclusively but primarily, through Jewish history and through the ways Jews live. As Moses says at the end of his life:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deuteronomy 4:32-34)
Thirty-three centuries ago, Moses already knew that Jewish history was and would continue to be unique. No other nation has survived such trials. The revelation of God to Israel was unique. No other religion is built on a direct revelation of God to an entire people as happened at Mount Sinai. Therefore God – the God of revelation and redemption – is known to the world through Israel. In ourselves we are testimony to something beyond ourselves. We are God’s ambassadors to the world.
Therefore, when we behave in such a way as to evoke admiration for Judaism as a faith and a way of life, that is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. When we do the opposite – when we betray that faith and way of life, causing people to have contempt for the God of Israel – that is a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.