David Walk

Don’t Desecrate – Sanctify!!

The book of Vayikra is called by our Sages, Torat Kohanim, but I would have suggested the Book of KEDUSHA or sanctity. Much of the book is about the process of bringing offerings in the MISHKAN or portable temple. These offerings are called KODSHIM. The heart of the book is called the Sanctity Document by many scholars. It describes proper human relationships both intimate and public. In this week’s Torah reading we move to the sanctity of time, and lists our holidays. The next and final section of the book discusses special mitzvot which reflect the special KEDUSHA of Eretz Yisrael. But I would like to focus on one verse which boldly declares the negative side of this issue: Don’t desecrate!

The whole verse is: You shall not profane (CHILUL, opposite of KADASH) My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I am the Eternal who sanctifies you (Vayikra 22:32). This declaration comes after a section describing the special KEDUSHA of the Cohanim. But what is the instruction or demand in our verse?

Probably, most readers of this famous verse think that it discusses martyrdom, and, sadly, there is truth to that. The Rambam writes: in any case that one is asked to transgress one of the commandments during a time of persecution, and the enforcer intends for [him] to transgress…he is obligated to give his life and be killed rather than transgressing (Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvot Lo Ta’aseh 63). But there’s a lot more to our verse than that extraordinary circumstance, which we pray will not be required of us ever again.

Baruch HaShem, there are many other practical lessons in our verse. Since our verse has been interpreted to mean that the actions described are in a community of Jews (usually defined as a MINYAN), there are many laws based on our verse which pertain to behavior in a shul or in the camp during the period in the MIDBAR. But there are many authorities who take this concept beyond the confines of the Jewish community. This is especially true today, when the whole world is watching everything, all the time. The entire concepts of private and public are morphing right before our eyes.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman saw how the Jews were being scrutinized by the general population as our ancestors had emerged from the ghettos in the previous hundred years. As he witnessed how many Jews were moving away from Torah and Mitzvot in Germany, he wrote:

This command relates back to the command to “keep my laws…” Negligence and indifference in God’s commandments is a desecration of God, for the commandments bear the weight of the name of God. This desecration is particularly acute if the sin is performed in public view. And therefore, in addition to the directive “do not profane..” is added the command “I will be sanctified.”

Rav Sacks Z”L, of course, commenting at the beginning of this century, wrote:

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)…We are God’s ambassadors to the world.Therefore when we behave in such a way as to evoke admiration for Judaism, that is a Kiddush Hashem. When we betray that way of life, causing people to have contempt for God – that is a Chillul Hashem…The fate of God’s “name” in the world is dependent on us and how we behave.

That is a heavy burden to bear, and there are no vacations from this responsibility. Rav Steinzaltz Z”L, during a private dinner in America was musing about the famous Yiddish dictum: ES IZ SHVER TSU ZEIN A YID (It’s hard to be a Jew!). After rejecting many possibilities (like Anti-Semitism and the sheer number of Mitzvot), he finally declared: It’s hard because there is no time off. We must maintain Torah and Mitzvot at all times.We are always being scrutinized by God, society, and our own conscience.

This is, perhaps, even more true for Jewish institutions. Rav Yehudah Amital Z”L, writing in the 1990’s when he was a minister in the Israeli government, saw the issue of CHILLUL HASHEM in the context of Medinat Yisrael. He wrote:

As we know, Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises that the State of Israel will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, regardless of nationality, and even if they are not Jewish…there is a halakhic obligation to fulfill the obligations undertaken in the Declaration of Independence – owing to the concern about the desecration of God’s name.

Another wonderful Jewish thinker who was recently lost to us, Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, both a great scholar and a wonderful, warm human being, also weighed in on this crucial topic. He was discussing the many aspects of the sanctification of God’s name, only one of which was about martyrdom. He finally concluded:

A wise man must be particularly careful of his behavior, because it can cause the desecration of God’s name, when one man’s actions cause others to stray from moral conduct. The development of mass communications has only intensified the problem. The covenant between God and the Jewish people lies at the base of the concept of choseness. This role obligates us to maintain a higher standard.

The Torah is informing us that we as Jews have a great responsibility in our behavior. Now many of you may be thinking, ‘Well, that’s not fair!’ Perhaps not, but as Shakespeare observed, ‘Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon ‘em.’ The Bard was writing sarcastically about Malvolio in Twelfth Night, but it sure rings true for the Jewish people. Embrace it, please!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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