Life, liberty, and the pursuit of difference

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If Thomas Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence in the 1960s, he might have opted for my title rather than the famous ‘pursuit of happiness,’ in the original. I’m very proud of that document, because it was signed on my birthday, just a few years before my arrival. It was still nice of them. But it is very true that the right to be different was the hallmark of the swinging 60s. The 50s were about fitting in, and being the same like white bread or ‘Ozzie and Harriet’. But that was to change with Civil Rights and the Counter Culture. 

A respected friend and Chabad SHALIACH, Rabbi Yisrael Deren, related to me that the Rebbe had told him, ‘without the Hippies, we couldn’t have BA’ALEI TESHUVA.’ This makes a lot of sense, because to become a BA’AL TESHUVA means to be different and even to look different. I have to admit it had an appeal for me in the mid-60’s. 

This week’s Torah reading has the mitzva of counting the OMER. Now, the Torah only demands that we count the days from Pesach until Shavuot, but our Sages required us to maintain a state of semi-mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva who died during the first 32 days of the count, according to the most popular custom. One of the signs of that mourning is to refrain from shaving and having our hair cut. 

That shaving part is important. Until after I graduated, my public high school had a very strict dress-code: long-sleeves, ties, hair couldn’t reach the collar, no sideburns below the ears, and no beards. I loved the Omer period. During my last two years in high school, I brought a rabbi’s note saying that I couldn’t shave, because of Jewish Law, during the Omer. I actually didn’t shave until Shavuot. Now, mind you, it wasn’t much of a beard, but it was the only one in Malden High. 

Finally, this brings me to the actual verse I want to discuss this week: You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am the Lord Who sanctifies you (Vayikra 22:32). This very famous dictum is explained by Rashi, ‘So what do we learn by Scripture adding “I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel?” It teaches us: Surrender your life and do not transgress God’s commandments, and thus sanctify My Name.’ 

This is the famous mitzva of KIDDUSH HASHEM, martyrdom. 

But is the only way to fulfill this mitzva through death? I don’t think so. That would totally overturn everything that we discussed in last week’s modest effort, where we discussed the sanctity of life. V’CHAI BAHEM, and live within them. Ours is TORAT CHAYIM. 

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) explains that the verse doesn’t demand Jews to die for Torah observance, even though, sadly, that has happened many times in our long history. No, it means that a Jew must be prepared to give one’s life (MUCHAN L’ZEH). This thought process of separating oneself from worldliness (GASHMIYUT) is the fulfillment of the precept. Martyrdom is not a goal. On the contrary it is only to be done in extremis, when all else fails. 

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB”M puts this into perspective, by reminding us that in the context of the verse, KIDDUSH HASHEM is connected to CHILUL HASHEM, desecrating God’s Name. The Talmud (Yoma 86) lists many actions which are considered a CHILUL HASHEM, most of them involve business or interpersonal relations. The example which resonates with me is: one who reads the Torah, studies and serves Torah scholars, but does not deal honestly or speak pleasantly with people. 

Rav Lichtenstein adds: A certain direction appears here in the Gemara, which involves mainly the impression one makes.  To what extent does one increase the public’s appreciation of and reverence for “the Name of God,” for a life of Torah and mitzvot?… The importance of this external aspect must be stressed; all of us bear the obligation of rendering the Almighty beloved among His creatures. 

The Sfat Emet emphasizes the internal aspect of Kiddush Hashem, while Rav Lichtenstein stresses the external situation. They’re both important. Their respective emphasis may reflect their venues. The Rebbe was speaking in a closed Chasidic Beit Medrash; Rev Lichtenstein was addressing a forum at Hebrew University. 

Both of these outstanding scholars understood something, which I was too immature to realize when I grew my scruffy facial hair. Identifying publicly with Torah and its values is a heavy responsibility. The verses introducing this mitzva are discussing the responsibilities of the Cohanim, God’s public servants. They were easily identifiable by their special garments. So, too, when we go about wearing our Jewish uniform, regardless of whether the kipa is knitted or velvet for men, the head covering is a hat, tichel or wig for married women, or floor sweeping skirt for unmarried women, please, remember it’s a responsibility: your behavior reflects on Torah and, yes, God! 

I wonder how many of us thought about that back in the States during the late 60s when ethnic pride spread far enough to encompass us. I hope and pray that when we don the uniform, we live up to the responsibility. 

Next: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Difference, Part 2

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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