By Rabbi Daniel Levitt
Of the many laws in this week’s Torah portion, one of the most fundamental is that of kiddush hashem. Literally it means sanctifying God’s name and attached to it is the negative commandment of not profaning God’s name.
The verse states, “You shall not defile My unique name, and I shall be sanctified among the children of B’nai Yisrael, I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”
The idea of sanctifying or profaning God’s name is not easily understood. We barely even understand what God’s name means (and God has quite a few different names which each mean something different), so how are we to begin to understand what it would mean to sanctify or profane that name?
Over the course of history, the most famous application of the mitzvah of kiddush hashem, sanctifying God’s name, is when one dies as a martyr. From Masada to the crusades to the Holocaust and in between there have, unfortunately, been countless Jewish martyrs who are said to have died sanctifying God’s name. While this is one way to fulfill this commandment, it is an application that I hope no one ever again has to fulfill themselves.
A more meaningful application of this commandment is to understand what it means to live sanctifying God’s name, rather than to die doing so.
The Talmud, (Yoma 86a) explains kiddush hashem in the following way, “that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved.” It goes on to describe the way to do this through your actions, and business dealings, that you be the type of person that is respected and you do it in a way that people take notice and see it as a result of your Jewish upbringing.
About such a person others will say, “Fortunate are the parents who taught that person Torah, fortunate is the teacher who taught that person Torah … see how pleasant are that person’s ways and how proper are his or her deeds.” Additionally, the Talmud in the same place warns us to not act in the opposite of what is described above so that people do not say the opposite about such a person.
It’s one thing to just be a good person. It’s another to be such a person that isn’t just good, but radiates a goodness that impresses everyone he or she comes into contact with. We can’t help the fact that people are going to judge each other; it’s a fact of life. Because you are going to be judged, and whether you like it or not, you are likely going to be judged as a Jew, you should live in such a way where people are impressed by you.
The commandment of kiddush hashem, praising God’s name, is such an important reminder to vigilantly live an inspired and inspiring life. When a person lives a life such as this, they are not only a benefit to themselves, they also benefit everyone else with whom they are associated with.
Especially in today’s day and age, when we see an extremely troubling rise in hatred toward Jewish people from all sides of the ideological spectrum, and increase in acts of violence against Jews, so many of us are left wondering what can we do to fight this rising tide of anti-Semitism. I wish there was an easy answer; there isn’t just one.
But I do believe that in the face of anti-Semitism we can choose to live in fear of the Jew hatred and hide, or we can choose to increase our own love for Jewishness and radiate that love outward. If there were to be a huge increase of proud, moral and ethical Jews who are wearing their Jewishness on their sleeves (or heads) — becoming even more of an inspirational force for ethical, moral and respectful behavior in their networks — then the people who have yet to be infected by the spreading disease of anti-Semitism will be immunized against it.
If everyone who comes in contact with a Jew knows that Jews are upstanding moral and respectable human beings, then they along with us will oppose the growth of anti-Semitism.
May we soon live in a world where there is no hatred toward anybody, and may we see the days when mankind lives with respect and understanding so that humanity can truly flourish. Shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Hillel at Temple University: The Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.