“Sanctifying and Defiling G-d’s Name”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, we encounter two prominent pronouncements that serve as foremost guideposts for the proper behavior of the Jewish people.

In Leviticus 22:32, the Torah states, “V’lo t’cha’l’loo et shem kawd’shee, v’nik’dash’tee b’toch B’nei Yisrael, ah’nee Hashem m’ka’dish’chem,” You shall not profane My holy Name; and I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel, I am the Lord Who sanctifies you.

Although, in the context of this week’s parasha, these two laws, one positive and one negative, pertain specifically to the Kohanim, the Priests, they apply equally to all the people of Israel. The positive law, known as Kiddush Hashem, calls for the sanctification of G-d’s name. The negative stricture, known as Hillul Hashem, forbids the profanation and desecration of G-d’s name.

Rabbi Abraham Chill, in his brilliant compendium, The Mitzvot, declares: “In the daily routine of his life, whatever he [the Jew] does and says, and wherever he goes, the Jew must ask himself whether his deed will bring honor and add luster to the name of G-d, or be profaning G-d’s name.”

Our rabbis tell us that Jews must be exceedingly careful in their actions, to do nothing to tarnish the honor of Judaism or of the Jewish people. The rabbis are particularly sensitive to any misdeed that is performed against non-Jews, and regard this as an unpardonable sin, because it gives the false impression of a lower moral standard of Judaism.

Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, 1872-1946), in his commentary on The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, states that every Jew must remember that the glory of G-d is entrusted into his or her care: “Every Israelite holds the honor of his Faith and his entire People in his hands. A single Jew’s offense can bring shame on the whole house of Israel. This has been the fate of Israel in all the ages; and nothing, it seems, will ever break its [the world’s] habit of putting down the crimes, vices or failings of the Jew, no matter how estranged from his people or his people’s faith he may be to his Jewishness, and of fathering them upon the entire race.”

Rabbi Hertz goes on to say, “Not to commit Hillul Hashem, is only a negative virtue. Far more is required of the Israelite. He is bidden so to live as to shed luster on the Divine Name, and the Torah, by his deeds and influence.”

The Talmud, in Yoma 86a, states that a Jewish scholar is held to even higher standards, and must make certain not to be the cause of Hillul Hashem, desecration of G-d’s name. Maimonides (the Rambam, 1135-1204, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician), in his inimitable style, underscores the special responsibilities of scholars.

There are other actions that are included under Hillul Hashem when performed by someone great in Torah and renowned for his piety, things for which people murmur about him. Even though they are not themselves sins, he has nevertheless desecrated God’s Name. For example: He made a purchase and did not pay immediately…or he indulges in frivolity or eating and drinking with and among ignorant people, or if he speaks unpleasantly with people and does not greet them with a pleasant countenance, but is rather a person of quarreling and anger, or similar matters, all depending on the scholar’s stature. He must be very exacting with himself and go beyond the strict letter of the law. (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:11)

The Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Metzia 2:5, cites the case of Rabbi Simeon ben Shatach, whose students bought a donkey for him from an Ishmaelite. When they presented the donkey to their rabbi they announced that they had found a precious stone in the animal’s collar. Rabbi Simeon asked if the Arab was aware that the gem was in the collar. When he was assured that the Arab did not know of the precious stone, he called out angrily to his students: “Do you think me a barbarian, that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Ishmaelite immediately!” The Talmud relates that when the gem was returned to the seller, the Arab exclaimed: “Blessed be the G-d of Simeon ben Shatach! Blessed be the G-d of Israel.”

Perhaps a discomforting incident, which occurred several years ago on a Jewish holiday at a kosher hotel where I was staying, can shed some light on this particular issue. I was told by a friend that he and his family were sitting on an outdoor porch. Two religious men were sitting on the porch studying Talmud together. My friend was shocked when one of the men suddenly opened a pack of cigarettes and began to smoke. (Since it was a holiday, lighting a cigarette from an already existing flame is permitted. Lately, more and more authorities are speaking out against this practice.) To avoid the smoke, my friend and his family moved from the location.

Later that day, a member of the family was sitting near me in the dining room and proceeded to tell me more details concerning the smoking incident. He related that when he and his family arrived at the porch, a non-Jewish man was already seated there, smoking. He politely asked the man if he would kindly smoke elsewhere, and the person picked himself up and moved. Not long after, the two young men arrived and sat down to study Talmud. One of them lit a cigarette. The man, whose family was there first, asked the young man to smoke elsewhere, but he refused. Later that night, at a symposium, one of the panelists, who had witnessed this uncomfortable confrontation spoke about it at length, decrying those who study Torah, but lack basic decency. It seemed as if everyone was talking about the incident, which had now escalated into a cause celebre.

We all know that smokers are not the most popular people these days. No matter what they do, they can do no right. It is also true that some so-called “scholars,” or observant Jews, who behave as less-than-perfect role models, are also not very popular. Mix the two together and you have a rather combustible combination.

It certainly seems that the young men studying could have simply picked themselves up and moved elsewhere, if only to sanctify G-d’s name. Instead, they remained, and created a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, which increased exponentially as the story spread.

Now, I am not certain that the young man who was smoking was entirely in the wrong. The porch area was one of the very few locations in the hotel that was designated as a smoking area. He certainly had a right to be there and smoke. Families with children should know better than to sit themselves down in a designated smoking area. Furthermore, the young man later clarified that he had been looking for a “light” for his cigarette for about fifteen minutes, and when he finally found one, he wanted to smoke in an area where he wouldn’t bother anyone. He was perfectly justified to expect that he would be able to smoke freely in this area without hassle or condemnation. On the other hand, he should have been aware of the ramifications of his actions, and perhaps acted beyond the letter of the law, rather than insist on his rights, because the Hillul Hashem engendered was significant, and cast aspersions on anyone serious about studying Torah.

We see from this unfortunate incident that, although a person might be right within the letter of the law, asserting one’s rights in such a situation may be unwise, resulting in the desecration of G-d’s name.

As ambassadors of our faith, we see how accurate Rabbi Hertz was when he stated that, “Every Israelite holds the honor of his Faith and of his entire People in his hands.” We must accept this responsibility and live up to it faithfully.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day,  is observed this year on Sunday night, May 1st, and all day Monday, May 2nd, 2011.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, will be observed on Monday night, May 9th, and all day Tuesday, May 10th, 2011.