05 May Parashat Emor: Desecrating and Sanctifying the Name of G-d
In Parashat Emor the Torah commands us not to desecrate the Name of G-d, and in the very same verse it bids us to sanctify G-d’s Name: “You shall not desecrate My sacred Name, and I shall be sanctified among Benei Yisrael” (Vayikra 22:32). At first glance, it seems strange that the Torah would discuss both extremes in the same verse. If the Torah commands us to make an effort to sanctify the Name of G-d, why must it also admonish us to ensure not to desecrate His Name? To answer this question, one Rabbi suggested reading the verse as follows: “You shall not desecrate My sacred Name, even while I am sanctified among Benei Yisrael.” According to this reading, the Torah here commands us not to cause a Chilul Hashem – a desecration of G-d’s Name – while we are in the process of creating a Kiddush Hashem – of sanctifying His Name. Unfortunately, people sometimes are so focused while performing a Mitzva that they neglect basic rules of manners and etiquette in the process. Somebody rushing to a Torah class, to make sure he gets a good seat and shows up on time, might push and shove through the crowd. While his enthusiasm for Torah is admirable, he has created a Chilul Hashem in his zeal for the Mitzva of learning Torah. The person whom he shoved will very likely look upon him and think, “This is what Torah learning does to a person? These are the kinds of people who attend Torah classes?” The Torah therefore warns us that even when “I am sanctified among Benei Yisrael,” when a person is involved in sacred endeavors, he must ensure to avoid desecrating G-d’s Name. A gentile who lived next door to a synagogue once entered the sanctuary during the morning services. After apologizing for the interruption, he politely asked that the person who parked his car in front of his driveway move the car so he can take his wife to the doctor. The person who had parked the car by his driveway arrogantly insisted that he first finish the prayer service and only then move the car. Here, too, his otherwise laudable attitude of zeal and reverence for Tefila resulted in a terrible Chilul Hashem; it led the non-Jewish neighbor to the conclusion that observant Jews care only for their rituals and prayers, and have no concern for the most elementary human ethics. We are currently in the middle of the period of Sefirat Ha’omer, during which we observe a number of practices of mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud tells that these great scholars perished from terrible illness during these weeks because they did not treat each other respectfully. The question is asked, why did they deserve such a harsh and drastic punishment for treating one another disrespectfully? Where is written that disrespect among Yeshiva students renders them deserving of painful death? Two great sages, the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) and the Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, Lithuania, 1835-1933), explain that the students were not punished for the sin of disrespect. Rather, they were punished for the Chilul Hashem that resulted from their behavior. People saw how they shouted and spoke offensively to one another, and walked away with the mistaken impression that this is what Torah learning does to a person. And the sin of Chilul Hashem, as the Rambam writes, is indeed the most grievous sin of all, for which one can earn atonement only in the next world. Numerous Rabbis have commented that nowadays, every observant Jew is like a rabbi, in that he sets an example through his daily conduct. Non-observant Jews and gentiles look to us as examples of all Orthodox Jewry; they see our behavior as representative of the values and teachings of traditional Judaism. It therefore behooves us to exercise extreme care in how we conduct ourselves, to ensure that we create a Kiddush Hashem, rather than, Heaven forbid, cause the Name of G-d to be desecrated.