The Rambam says that a wise person makes a kiddush Hashem by treating others with respect and by living a life that makes all who see him praise him and want to be like him. We glorify Hashem’s presence in this world by emulating His ways of kindness and by spreading the love to all of his children.
If this is the meaning of kiddush Hashem, or sanctification of Hashem’s name, then we can possibly comprehend the meaning of a chilul Hashem, or desecration of His name. The Zohar explains that the word chilul comes from the word chalal, which means void or empty. When a person acts as if he exists in a void where no one is watching him, or that Hashem is not aware of his actions, he creates a chilul Hashem. In other words, if ones actions are not proper, he creates a state where there is less awareness of Hashem’s existence in the world. Our actions are not neutral. Each act that is performed can either increase the awareness of G-d’s presence in the world or remove it – it is either one or the other.
The word chilul can also come from the word chol, which means mundane. When one’s actions create a sense in others that G-d does not exist in the world, those that observe him performing a holy act will believe that the mitzvah or action is rote or mundane. If others respect our day-to-day behavior and ethics, then they will see that our ritual acts and mitzvot contain some sense of holiness or moral lessons.
The Talmud Yerushalmi relates the story of the holy sage Shimon Ben Shetach. His students wanted to buy him a present to help him earn parnassah. They went to a gentile to buy him a special donkey. When they purchased the donkey, they noticed a precious pearl hanging from its neck. They told their rebbe that the value of this pearl would enable him to provide for himself for years. Shimon ben Shetach asked his students if the seller knew about the pearl left around the neck on the donkey. The answer was no, but that it was considered a lost item and that he should be able to keep it. Shimon ben Shetach told them that they should immediately return the precious pearl to the former owner. He explained that he would rather the man declare, “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews,” than have all the money in the world. When the pearl was returned the man did indeed declare, “Blessed be the G-d of Shimon ben Shetach.” The non-Jew fully understood that returning the pearl was an act that represented the ethics of the Torah and was a reflection of G-d himself.
Over the seven days of the Yom Tov of Sukkos, 70 bulls are sacrificed in the Bais Hamikdash. According to the Talmud (Sukkah 55b), there are 70 nations of the world. The 70 bulls correspond to those 70 nations, and it was in the merit of these bulls that the nations flourished and succeeded. In essence, we were bringing the sacrifices as a favor to the nations of the world to obtain their forgiveness and request their well-being. Ironically, when they destroyed our Holy Temple, they also destroyed all the goodness that was brought to them as a result of these sacrifices. While we wish the nations of the world success and prosperity, we realize that this feeling has not always been reciprocated. The feeling of being persecuted is part of our Jewish soul, and this leads to our distrust of the nations of the world. Very few nations and relatively few individuals intervened as we were being expelled from Germany or annihilated in Poland. While insularity and ethnocentricity has worked well for us during this long exile, its result cannot be a lack of concern towards what others think of us, because that does not allow us to accomplish our goal of sanctifying G-d’s name in our day-to-day lives.
On Yom Kippur we can atone for almost any sin. Sometimes part of the atonement requires us to have some sort of trial or punishment, but ultimately we can repent for our actions in this world. However, there is one sin so severe that even Yom Kippur does not have the power to allow us to correct. That sin is chilul Hashem, because when we desecrate G-d’s name we cause others to rebel against the Torah, and that is the opposite of our purpose in creation.