We now find ourselves in teshuva season. As we prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are thinking about resolutions of how we will be better next year and we are asking God to forgive us for the sins that we committed this past year. But what about those sins for which we cannot be forgiven? The Gemara in Yoma 86a asserts that for sins of Chillul Hashem, of desecrating God’s Name, there is no atonement until we die. In other words, it seems that on Yom Kippur, no matter what we do, we cannot undo any sins that we have committed which are “Chillul Hashem” sins. This is a potentially very scary concept, depending on how broadly we define “Chillul Hashem.” For example, Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l, once wrote that “Kiddush Hashem means affecting the very essence of that “Shem” (Name), which, as it were, contracts or expands according to our behavior.” Applying this very broad definition of Chillul Hashem, anything bad that we do has the ability to profane His Name, by detracting from Godliness in the world. How, then, can we achieve atonement on Yom Kippur for any sin?
Different Rishonim have explained this Gemara in different ways. In Shaarei Teshuva, Sha’ar 4:4-5, Rabbenu Yonah writes that, indeed, any sin of Chillul Hashem cannot be forgiven until we die. With regard to most sins, there is a four-step process of teshuva involving recognition of sin, regret for having committed the sin, resolve not to sin again, and then confession. For Chillul Hashem, this process is insufficient because this sin does not only involve a maaseh averah, a sinful action, but it can also cause tremendous damage when it results in people speaking negatively about God, the Torah or the Jewish people. Nevertheless, we can rectify the situation through doing the opposite of Chillul Hashem, through engaging in Kiddush Hashem, by sanctifying and glorifying Hashem’s Name, by engaging in behavior that results in people speaking positively about God or the Torah or the Jewish people.
The Rambam addresses this issue in a different manner. In Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, the Rambam defines Chillul Hashem as three different types of sins. If one is supposed to give up his life for a particular sin like idolatry and he does not, then this results in Chillul Hashem. This happens very rarely for obvious reasons. Additionally, if one commits a sin “l’hachi’is,” contemptuously, out of spite, then that is a Chillul Hashem. Finally, if a person known to be an especially righteous or pious person does something inappropriate that causes people to talk negatively about him or the Torah, then that is also considered a Chillul Hashem. According to the Rambam, then, other than not giving up our life when we are commanded to do so, we are only punished for extreme and very limited cases of Chillul Hashem which reflects a flawed personality – either rebelling against God or being a reckless spiritual leader. For most us though, the sins that we commit, even if they profane God’s holy Name, do not fall into this category, and we can achieve atonement for these sins.
According to the Rambam, what, then, is the message of the Gemara in Yoma that discusses the severity of Chillul Hashem if, in practice, we can achieve atonement for most Chillul Hashem sins? Perhaps the message is that on Yom Kippur we need to be so cognizant about the value of Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem because on some level, they are even more powerful than the Yom Kippur experience itself because these types of sins cannot be undone even by the Yom Kippur experience! When we say that Yom Kippur is a day of repentance, I believe that it not only has the greatest potential to provide us with forgiveness through repentance, but it also has the greatest potential to teach us about the value of teshuva in the broader sense, of returning to God, through Kiddush Hashem.
Kiddush Hashem is not only a particular mitzvah. It is a way of life, a mode of living because we sense the great opportunity of being God’s representative in this world and all that this entails, i.e., meticulous observance of his mitzvoth, even those that are difficult for us, and being the most ethical people in society. Additionally, it means adding a new dimension to all the good that we currently do. It means that when we engage in actions that are second-nature to us, whether a specific mitzvah or just the way we interact with others, even though we’ve already internalized these behaviors and attitudes, we can take them to a higher level by consciously recognizing that by doing them we are sanctifying God’s Name. It means that we constantly recognize that there is a lofty overarching purpose that governs our life and ultimately affects all of our decisions in life, and then many of the worries and the anxieties and the annoyances that we often face truly can seem very, very small in contrast to this lofty goal.
As we engage in the process of teshuva at this time, let us recognize the power of both Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem, how they may even be more powerful than Yom Kippur, and how this knowledge can impact all of our actions in our daily living.