In Vayikra 22;32, the Torah warns against profaning Hashem’s Name, in order that that Name be sanctified among the Jewish people. Although written in the passive in the Torah, tradition has always read the verse as establishing an obligation to sanctify Hashem’s Name. We could imagine that obligation stemming solely from the fact that Hashem exists, is our Creator, and/or gave us the Torah and mitzvot.
Yet that’s not how the Torah phrases it. Instead, the Torah adds (in the next verse) that Hashem took us out of Egypt to be our Lord. What is added to our understanding of the mitzvah by including that? To understand, I think we first have to define the commandment a little more fully.
Sanctifying Hashem’s Name—the Extreme Version
Rashi in Vayikra already mentions what is perhaps the best-known aspect of the mitzvah, that Jews are sometimes obligated to die rather than transgress a piece of the Torah. I do find it ironic that people tend to know the extreme version of this obligation more than aspects of it that might be more relevant. First, they know that a Jew is always obligated to die rather than allow him/herself to be coerced into violating one of the “Big Three,” alien worship, murder, or sexual immorality. It is true that there are aspects of each of those that come up in the United States today—and Orthodox Jews who forget how serious a violation of the Torah these are, and treat them fairly lightly—but I find it even more notable that the halachah also requires us to be killed rather than transgress any commandment that has become the target of specific religious attack.
The term in Hebrew is shemad, an attempt to destroy the Jewish religion, but it doesn’t have to be an attempt to destroy the whole religion—any prohibition that comes under specific attack becomes a point of shemad, and our obligation to avoid transgressing it heightened by the element of the need to sanctify Hashem’s Name. If, for example, a country were to decide that not charging interest was wrong, and that the Jewish opposition to it was discriminatory or economically backward, and therefore to require us to take interest from each other, without using any legal end-arounds, that mitzvah would become a question of kiddush Hashem.
(Sefer haChinuch points out that this doesn’t apply to positive obligations; were there to be an attempt to stop Jews from circumcising their sons, for example, we would not be required to lose our lives to circumcise them, although we might be required to flee that country as soon as we could).
To understand the shemad obligation to be killed over even admittedly lesser prohibitions, let’s look at an everyday version of kiddush Hashem.
Sanctifying Hashem’s Name as Part of a Minyan
A Mishnah in Megillah 23b lists several ceremonies that can only be enacted with a quorum of ten male Jews. These include saying Barechu, repeating Shemoneh Esreh, the priests’ blessing, reading the Torah and/or haftarah, and saying sheva brachot in celebration of a wedding (kaddish was added later to this list—the earliest recorded version, I believe, is in Seder R. Amram Gaon in the late 9th century CE).
What I’m not sure is as well known is that we need a minyan because these are all davar she-bikdushah, a matter of sanctity, and the Gemara cites our verse in Vayikra. Since that verse refers to Hashem being sanctified be-toch benei Yisrael, among the Jewish people, it is a mitzvah that only must or can be performed in front of a minyan of Jews.
That means, as Rashi points out, that a Jew is only required to forfeit his/her life to avoid transgressing certain commandments when it is in front of other Jews (or, I believe, will become known to other Jews). So, too, we can only join in declaring Hashem’s Name, thus sanctifying it, with a quorum of Jews.
Rambam’s formulation in the Sefer haMitzvot, Obligation 9, explains why. He renders it as an obligation to “publicize this true faith in the world, and not fear injury (or damage) from any injurer (source of damage).” The reason we have to be killed in the extreme case, according to Rambam, is that we not mislead an oppressor into thinking we would deny our faith.
Rambam makes clear that all the expressions of the commandment are ways of fulfilling our obligation to make clear how important Hashem’s Name is to us. Usually, we do it by responding to certain prayers or blessings. In extremis, we do it by refusing to cede our attachment to obligations that are under pressure.
The Exodus Component
We could see this being obligatory on all humanity, in whatever mitzvot apply to them. If a Jew or non-Jew were to be ordered to engage in homosexuality, for one example, they are both equally prohibited from doing so, so why is it that halachah is clear that only the Jew would have to forfeit his life?
Sifra says that non-Jews are not obligated to sanctify Hashem’s Name, because they weren’t taken out of Egypt, that the verse refers to the Exodus to make clear that Hashem took us out so that we would sanctify His Name in public. In other words, Hashem’s prohibiting certain actions doesn’t carry with it an inherent command to killed to avoid that action.
Jews are different, and we’re different because that’s part of why Hashem took us out of Egypt, to be the people who stand up for Hashem’s standards whenever they’re under attack. So that, as we recall the Exodus again in just a few weeks, we would be well-advised to remember this aspect of that event, that it turned all of us into people at the forefront of representing Hashem in this world.