“Sanctifying G-d’s Name”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, we find the seminal commandments to sanctify G-d’s name and the prohibition of desecrating G-d’s name.

Leviticus 22:32 states: “V’loh t’chah’l’loo eht shaym kohd’shee, v’nik’dahsh’tee b’toch B’nay Yisrael, Ah’nee Hashem m’kah’dish’chem,” You shall not desecrate My Holy Name, rather I shall be sanctified among the Children of Israel; I am the L-rd Who sanctifies you.

Many important laws and interpretations are derived from this well-known verse.

Unfortunately, over the course of history, sanctifying G-d’s name became a very common Jewish phenomenon. Jews have been murdered for being Jews from time immemorial and many millions of Jews died “Ahl Kiddush Hashem,” in sanctification of G-d’s name. Every one of the millions of martyrs died a sanctified death. The victims were not murdered because they were evil or because they had done anything wrong. They were murdered simply because they were Jews who were disliked by others who sought to terminate their existence.

Perhaps the first recorded instance of dying Ahl Kiddush Hashem were the presumed Israelite victims, who were set upon by the Amalekites in the wilderness for no reason (Exodus 17:8-16). Although the Torah’s account of Amalek’s attack on the elderly and the laggards of Israel does not specifically report deaths, most of the commentators regard the actions of Amalek as murderous (see Onkelos on Deuteronomy 25:17). Among the other noted occurrences of dying Ahl Kiddush Hashem are the tragic stories of Hannah and her seven sons that are part of the legacy of Chanukah, as well as the martyrs who held out in the siege of Masada. The crusaders made an art of killing Jews Ahl Kiddush Hashem, and the Spanish inquisitors killed any Jew who refused to convert to Christianity. Hitler, of course, was the most proficient practitioner of killing Jews Ahl Kiddush Hashem.

The profanation of G-d’s name is one of the most severe sins a Jew can commit. Consequently, a Jew who is not compelled to commit a sin, but does so willingly out of sheer spite in an attempt to proclaim defiance and denial of G-d, is considered to have committed an act of Chilul Hashem. The Talmud in Yomah 86a states that “He who has committed Chilul Hashem, even Teshuvah, Yom Kippur and suffering cannot fully atone for his sin, until the day of his death.”

Ironically, the most important means of sanctifying G-d’s name takes place, not under duress, but in the course of everyday living. A person who is seen by all to behave in a punctiliously moral and ethical manner, leading people to say of him or her, “Fortunate are the parents and teachers who raised such a child,” brings great credit to G-d’s name. One who acts despicably brings great shame and discredit to G-d’s name and causes people to say negative things about him, his religion and G-d. Thus, we see that the absence of profanation is often the confirmation of sanctification, and by not desecrating G-d’s name, one indeed sanctifies G-d’s name.

Maimonides notes that profaning G-d’s name often occurs in another manner. If a highly respected person, one of presumed impeccable character, commits a wrong, even a minor trespass, that person profanes the name of G-d. Consequently, when a respected person delays payment for something that he bought, or acts callously with others, this brings G-d and His Torah into disrepute (Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 5:11).

The classical commentators seek to explain the rationale behind the concepts of sanctifying and desecrating G-d’s name.

The Sforno states that since G-d’s actions are perfect, mortals must always strive to emulate His actions by aspiring to act with perfection. Since the Torah delineates the proper course of action for all, Jews who follow the precepts of the Torah automatically sanctify G-d’s name.

R’ Saadiah Gaon explains that a person of great stature who desecrates G-d’s name causes others to doubt the efficacy of our Jewish religion and raises questions in the minds of others regarding the value of faith in G-d.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that humans are expected to act as G-d’s servants and be truly and totally dedicated to their Master with their entire being, body and soul. Anything less is a desecration of the Master.

The Recanati suggests that, had G-d not taken the Israelites out of Egypt, they would not have known what it means to live as human beings. After G-d brought His people out of Egypt, he transformed them into “a Kingdom of priests and a Holy nation.” By behaving as a holy people, the nation expresses its gratitude to G-d.

Unfortunately, as a result of the unprecedented increase in media coverage and the proliferation of instant communication, the impact of sanctifying G-d’s name and profaning G-d’s name, in our day and age, has been multiplied many times over. Thus, any act that is perceived as desecrating G-d’s name in contemporary times has a far more negative impact than those that were committed 100, 200 or 2,000 years ago.

To paraphrase the lament of Rabbi Shimon Schwab: The appearance of a rabbi sitting in court with his velvet yarmulkah, in full view of a television audience composed of millions of viewers, who is accused of having ruthlessly enriched himself at the expense of others, exploiting, conniving and manipulating, causes sinister aspersions to be cast on all traditional Jews and on traditional Judaism as a way of life.

May we be spared any further instances of desecration of G-d’s name. Indeed, may the Jewish community be blessed with an abundance of favorable instances of sanctifying G-d’s name.

May you be blessed.

This Tuesday evening, April 23rd through Wednesday evening, April 24th is Pesach Shay’nee, the second Passover. Click here to find out why a second Passover was ordained, who celebrated it in ancient times, and how it is commemorated today.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Saturday night, April 27th and continue all day Sunday, April 28th, 2013. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.