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Around Midnight: Avoiding Desecrating God's Name

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

"And Moshe said, 'so said God at about midnight I shall go out in the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die... (Shemot, 11:4)

Moshe warns Pharaoh about the oncoming Plague of the firstborn, telling him it will take place at approximately midnight. The Gemara[1] addresses why Moshe said it this way, when the he could have simply said, 'at midnight'. The Gemara explains that Moshe was concerned that the Egyptian astrologers would erroneously work out that midnight was a slightly different time to its real time. Consequently, they would claim that Moshe was a liar because he did not accurately predict when the plague would take place.

This Gemara is highly problematical: One question, is why should Moshe care about what the Egyptians would think - it was highly evident that their bias was so powerful that they were incapable of being intellectually honest about the wondrous miracles that had taken place? Secondly, if the concern was the real time of midnight would be slightly after the time calculated by the astrologers, then surely, when a few seconds after their time, the plague did in fact take place, they would surely recognize the truthfulness of Moshe's words and accept that they must have miscalculated.

One possible approach is as follows:[2] Moshe's concern was for Chillul Hashem - desecration of God's name. According to this understanding, it is true that even if the Plague would take place a few moments after the estimated time, the Egyptians would recognize that Moshe was not lying, but for those few seconds after their estimated time passed with nothing happening, there would be a great Chillul Hashem. Thus, Moshe's concern was to even avoid a Chillul Hashem of a very temporary nature. And even though the Egyptians were obviously intellectually dishonest, Moshe did not want give them any excuse to find something negative in his actions.

This approach teaches two important lessons about the concern of Chillul Hashem. Firstly, that we are not only concerned for Chillul HaShem from reasonable onlookers who would have justification in misunderstanding our actions. Rather, we must also be weary of giving cynical observers any excuse to twist our actions into something negative. The second less is that even if the Chillul Hashem is very fleeting, it is still extremely serious and must be avoided.

Rabbi Yissachar Frand gives the following analogy to express this second point: "Let us picture the following analogy: A person is falsely accused in the morning edition of the newspaper. Even if there is a retraction in the next morning's paper, that does not rectify the problem. The accused will not let the editors go to press with the regular afternoon edition of the paper based on the assurance - "Don't worry, we will clear up the errors in the story in tomorrow morning's edition." He wants the retraction printed - not only in the afternoon paper - but if there will be an additional morning edition; he wants his name cleared by the final edition. So stringent is the Honor of Heaven and so dangerous is a desecration of G-d's Name for even a moment that Moshe could not tolerate such a possibility."

It is also important to remember that a Chillul Hashem is not only the result of appearance of sinning, rather, any action that seems inappropriate for that person can constitute a Chillul Hashem. This is demonstrated by the Gemara[3] that gives examples of what the Rabbis considered to be acts of Chillul Hashem. Rava says that for him to not pay the butcher immediately would be a Chillul Hashem in a place where that is not done, because he would be suspected of not planning to pay him back at all. Rebbe Yochanan says that for him, walking a short distance without learning and without wearing tefillin would constitute a Chillul Hashem. These men were so great that even technically permitted actions could bring about a Chillul Hashem because people would think that such great Torah scholars were doing something slightly wrong.

We are not judged on that level, but every Jew is, automatically, a walking example of a representative of the Jewish people. Consequently, any action that could be construed in a negative way can bring about a Chillul Hashem and cause people to think badly of the Torah observant community. Examples of this may be allowing one's children to throw litter on the ground, not keeping all the laws related to driving even if this does not cause danger, pushing in in lines, being unfriendly to others, and not being the one to give in, in disagreements. Even though many people do these kinds of things, Jews are judged to a higher standard, and more is expected of them. And like in the case of Moshe, some people are only too eager to find any hint of wrongdoing in our actions, thus necessitating an even higher awareness that we are being watched and judged.

On the positive side, when a Torah Jew is extra careful to act in a positive way, such as by greeting every person, by picking up litter, giving charity in front of others, it plays a part in our role of being a Light unto Nations. May we all emulate Moshe's concern to avoid even a momentary Chillul Hashem.


1. Brachot, 4a.
2. This approach is partly based on an answer given by a Rabbi Yissachar Frand in the name of Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch.
3. Yoma, 86a.

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