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October 10, 2015 / 27 Tishri, 5776
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Parashat Emor

Jewish men studying at a yeshiva

Jewish men studying at a yeshiva
Photo Credit: Yaakov Nahomie/Flash90

“You shall not desecrate My holy Name, rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel; I am HaShem Who sanctifies you, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be a God unto you; I am HaShem.” (VAYIKRA 22:32-33)

The Rambam explains this commandment by teaching that “the entire House of Israel is commanded regarding the great mitzvah of Kiddush HaShem, as (VAYIKRA 22:32) states: `I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel.’ Also, they are warned against desecrating (His holy Name), as (the above verse) states: `You shall not desecrate My holy Name’.” (Yesodei HaTorah 5:1)

These mitzvot are given to each and every Jew to be safeguarded in our private lives and also to the Hebrew Nation to be performed as a collective. It is our responsibility to actively sanctify – and guard against desecrating – GoD’s Name through our personal behavior. In both the company of fellow Jews and in the presence of gentiles, we must be relentlessly careful to conduct ourselves with morality, consideration towards others and honest financial dealings. A Jew must always be conscious that the Hebrew Nation represents HaShem in this world and that Israel is a direct reflection of His Divine Ideal. Due to the merit of this tremendous responsibility, we must be careful to never behave in a way that could cause others to look negatively upon the Jewish people.

While the modern Torah world certainly emphasizes these teachings on an individual level, the importance of these concepts on a national level is regrettably often ignored. In order to fully understand the idea of Kiddush HaShem on a collective scale, we must look into the Books of our Prophets – prophecies meant to educate us on how to function as a strong and healthy nation on our native soil.

“So I poured My anger upon them because of the blood that they poured upon the earth – and they defiled it with their idols – so I scattered them among the nations and they were dispersed among the lands. According to their ways and their doings did I judge them; and they came to the nations to which they came, and they desecrated My holy Name when it was said of them, `These are HaShem’s people, but they departed His land'; but I pitied My holy Name that the House of Israel desecrated among the nations to which they came.” (YEHEZKEL 36:18-21)

HaShem rebukes Am Yisrael for desecrating His Name among the nations. It is important to note that God does not accuse Israel of desecrating His Name through breaking any specific precept. Rather He is condemning Israel for desecrating His Name by the very reality of being scattered amongst the nations. In the previous verse, HaShem clearly states that it was He Who had scattered Israel throughout the world as a consequence of our sins. So then why should He rebuke the Jewish people for the very punishment that He Himself inflicted upon us?

This question reveals a profound truth concerning how God’s Name is perceived in our world. While Jews may have understood through the many centuries in foreign lands that HaShem had temporarily exiled us from our soil as a result of our transgressions, other nations view reality from a different perspective. Gentiles could easily argue that while our God had promised to make us a mighty nation and to bring us into our homeland where we would enjoy independence, security and abundance, Jews are scattered throughout the world and are very often victims of brutal persecution. God therefore decrees that the very exile – which He Himself brought about – is an objective desecration of His Name because it causes the nations to question His power.

The word chilul (desecration) stems from the root word chalal (emptiness), meaning that a profanation of God’s Name appears to empty His Divine Presence from the world and causes people to doubt His very existence. Because Israel is the national expression of HaShem, the nations judge God based on how they view His nation. When gentiles are ruling over and persecuting Jews, they see this not only as a sign of Jewish weakness but also as the weakness – or non-existence – of Israel’s God.

It is known that during the Holocaust in Europe, Nazi guards in the death camps would often taunt their Jewish victims with comments that inferred our God could not exist. For the Germans it was a simple equation. If there had existed a God of Israel, He would surely have intervened on His people’s behalf. Therefore, an event like the Holocaust (although each individual Jew who was killed died a death of Kiddush HaShem on a personal level) was a desecration of God’s Name on a national level. The mass victimization of the Jewish people brought the world to doubt the very existence of HaShem.

But when Israel returned to sovereignty over our borders and triumphed in a series of victories against impossible odds, the Name of God was sanctified and the entire world was blessed with the opportunity to ascend new heights of spiritual awareness. Israel’s return home and our miraculous military achievements are perhaps the highest verifications of HaShem’s existence and strength. Through performing the greatest sanctification of His Name in modern history, Israel essentially proved the Torah’s validity while simultaneously disproving the man-made religions that had for centuries claimed the Jews had lost God’s favor. And the redemption is now unfolding in our generation, not because Jews are righteous or deserving of salvation, but simply because history has had enough of God’s Name being defiled.

“Therefore say to the House of Israel: `Thus says my Lord HaShem/ELOKIM: Not for your sake do I act, O House of Israel, but for My holy Name that you have desecrated among the nations to which you came. And I will sanctify My great Name that was desecrated among the nations, that you desecrated among them. The nations shall know that I am HaShem – the words of my Lord HaShem/ELOKIM – when I become sanctified through you in their sight; and I shall take you from the nations and gather you in from the countries, and I shall bring you to your land; and I shall sprinkle pure water upon you, that you be cleansed.” (YEHEZKEL 36:22-25)

Whether on a personal level or on a national level, the mitzvah of Kiddush HaShem is identified as the general commandment to give one’s life in order to sanctify the Name of God or to avoid its desecration. Based on the verse “You shall observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live – I am HaShem” (VAYIKRA 18:5), the Sages conclude that Jews are generally meant to live – rather than die – by the Torah. The Talmud therefore instructs us to transgress most Torah Laws for the sake of preserving Hebrew life. This, however, excludes Divine commandments against murder, idol worship or sexual immorality – dire transgressions for which we are commanded to give up our lives rather than sin. In addition to these three severe prohibitions, we are also required to lay down our lives in a public situation for which the honor of HaShem’s Ideal is at stake (the Rambam explains this concept at great length in the fifth chapter of Yesodei HaTorah). In fact, a profanation of God’s Name is the only situation the Torah views as being graver than murder, idol worship or sexual immorality.

In the era of Israel’s national rebirth, it becomes crucial that our teachers shed light on Torah concepts that apply to the Jewish people as a collective. Among the other vital understandings of our generation, a proper emphasis must be placed on the national principle of Kiddush HaShem. For Israel to rise up and successfully face the many arduous challenges ahead, Torah leaders must illuminate the full depth of these ideals and inspire the nation towards the revelation of God’s Oneness to all of Creation.

About the Author: Yehuda HaKohen teaches history at several Jerusalem institutions and is a seasoned activist for indigenous rights in the Middle East and a vocal opponent of attempts to shrink Israel's borders. Yehuda organizes grassroots Jewish-Arab dialogue meetings for the purpose of fostering mutual acceptance and understanding.

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