Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23
This week’s Torah portion begins with a detailed description of the priestly code of holiness, and concludes with instructions regarding the cycle of holidays. Bridging these two sections is a verse that describes two of Judaism’s key mitzvot (commandments): “… You shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people…” (Leviticus 22:32).
As Jews, we’re obligated to sanctify God by refraining from Hillul HaShem, desecrating God’s name, as well as by engaging in Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name. How can mortal men and women undertake the awesome task of sanctifying God? How can they truly bring honor to the Creator?
Sanctifying, and not desecrating, God’s name can be done in many ways. We’re taught not to act in a way that would hurt God’s reputation in the world. During the Talmudic period, the rabbis used this verse as a moral challenge to the people of Israel. They taught that any behavior that brings public disgrace on Jews and Judaism likewise brings disgrace to God, and thus is considered Hillul HaShem.
An example from contemporary life: On many occasions, I’ve had the good fortune of driving through Westchester County with my rabbi, and have noticed that he is a fairly cautious and courteous driver. Being from New York City, I found this somewhat unusual, and once asked him why he drives so cautiously. He replied that should he race a yellow light while wearing a kippah (skullcap), or forget to signal a lane change, he wouldn’t be making a statement about himself only as a driver, but also as a Jew and, for some, about all Jews. In this way, he would bring dishonor to God and to the Jewish people, thereby committing an act of Hillul HaShem. That’s why he always tries to drive cautiously and courteously.
At the same time, any action that we take that enhances the dignity of Jews, Judaism, and God constitutes a Kiddush HaShem and is regarded as meritorious.
Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, teaches:
If he speaks kindly to his fellow man, showing himself sociable and amiable with a welcome for everyone, taking insult but not giving it, respecting them, even those who make light of him…such a man has sanctified the name of God.
As Jews, we’re encouraged to act, each and every day, in a moral and ethical way, so as to win respect from all people and so bring honor to God’s name. Kiddush HaShem can be done in such “small” but significant ways as giving up one’s seat on a bus, train, or subway to an older person. More generally, it requires us to speak, to work and to play in a way that reflects well on God. It requires us to do our share to contribute to Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. To put it more simply, the mandate of Kiddush HaShem requires us to try always to “do the right thing.”
May this week’s Torah portion inspire us all to help make the world a better place, and as a result, to honor God and our tradition.
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Pronounced: hah-SHEMM, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “the name,” word used to refer to God.
Pronounced: KID-ush, Origin: Hebrew, literally holiness, the blessing said over wine or grape juice to sanctify Shabbat and holiday.