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Israel is a living workshop where lofty Jewish ideals can become reality.
In this week's Parsha, God tells the Jewish people:
"You shall not desecrate My Holy Name (Chillul Hashem), rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel (Kiddush Hashem). I am God Who makes you holy." (Leviticus 22:32)
What is the nature of this Mitzvah?
The primary privilege and responsibility of every Jew is to create positive PR for God through our loyal adherence to His Torah. Certain mitzvot clearly achieve this, like eating Matzah on Passover. When I spend a week cleaning out breadcrumbs from every nook and cranny of my home, the only possible motivation is that God said so! By eating Matzah, I increase the respect for God in the world, which is the essence of Kiddush Hashem.
Another obvious example is the Mitzvah of Bris Milah ― circumcision. Who would perform non-medical surgery on a helpless baby ― and on such a sensitive part of the body? (Even the most radical college fraternity doesn't require such an extreme show of commitment!) So when a Jew performs Bris Milah, it is a Kiddush Hashem, awakening us and others to the presence of God in our lives.
The Holocaust produced many heroic deeds of Jews standing loyal to God, in the face of the most impossible conditions.
A beautiful story illustrates this idea (from "Stories of the Holocaust," by Yaffa Eliach):
One of the forced laborers in the camps relates that one day he heard frightening cries of anguish the likes of which he had never heard before. Later he learned that on that very day a selection had been made ― of infants to be sent to the ovens. We continued working, tears rolling down our faces, and suddenly I hear the voice of a Jewish woman: "Give me a knife."
I thought she wanted to take her own life. I said to her, "Why are you hurrying so quickly to the world of truth..." All of a sudden the German soldier called out, "Dog, what did you say to the woman?"
"She requested a pocketknife and I explained to her that it was prohibited to commit suicide."
The woman looked at the German with inflamed eyes, and stared spellbound at his coat pocket where she saw the shape of his pocketknife. "Give it to me," she requested. She bent down and picked up a package of old rags. Hidden among them, on a pillow as white as snow, lay a tender infant. The woman took the pocketknife, pronounced the blessing ― and circumcised the child. "Master of the Universe," she cried, "You gave me a healthy child, I return him to You a worthy Jew."
Every aspect of our behavior can foster a Kiddush Hashem. I asked a woman who recently became observant what led her to make such a commitment. She said that when her 10-year-old niece became observant, the girl transformed from being a spoiled brat, into a model of kindness and compassion. The woman said, "If this is the effect that Torah has on a person, then I want it, too!"
On the converse, a Jew acting in a despicable manner is a desecration of God's Name. Which is why we are so bothered when a Jew cheats in business. Besides violating the Torah prohibition of stealing, the additional tragedy is that people will say, "If this is the effect that Torah has, then I don't want any part of it." It distances people from connecting to God.
Even further, such behavior demoralizes society, because there is a feeling that if Jews ― the "guardians of morality" ― are corrupt, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
This is perhaps the reason why the State of Israel today is a constant source of worldwide media attention, and why the United Nations routinely condemns Israel for every slight misstep (real or imagined). If it happened in another country, it may be forgiven as a consequence of law and order. But deep down the world expects Jews to uphold their mission as the role models for humanity, the "Light Unto the Nations."
This is why the Talmud (Yoma 86a) says that Chillul Hashem is the most serious of all transgressions, and the one for which it is most difficult to atone.
In actuality, the State of Israel has been a great source of Kiddush Hashem. The blossoming of the desert, the ingathering of the exiles, the great centers of Torah study, and the solid economic base ― what other country achieved so much in its first 50 years? And this on the heels of a devastating Holocaust and crippling blows from Arab enemies.
Unfortunately, Israeli society also has aspects of Chillul Hashem on both sides of the fence. Orthodox Jews sometimes throw things and shout ― and the effect can be devastating.
The Torah says: “You shall surely correct your neighbor, but don't bear a sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). This means it is forbidden to correct someone if the result will make matters worse. In other words, it is no mitzvah to protest Shabbat desecration in a way that will create tension and resentment. Actually the bigger mitzvah in that case would be to keep quiet, or find a more pleasant way of expression. Don't allow your Kiddush Hashem to become a Chillul Hashem.
On the other side, visitors to Israel are often shocked to find Jews sitting in cafes eating bread on Passover, and even having pork roasts on Yom Kippur. And some of the worst Western vulgarities have become an accepted part of Israeli life. It's all over the media for the world to watch and say, “Such is the People of the Book?!”
Israel is a living workshop where lofty Jewish ideals can become reality. To chase after the lowest elements of Western society is to sink into the grime of history. Is this how we define "something Jewish existing in the world?" Is this the expression of "light unto the nations?" Is this the culmination of 2,000 years of struggle and suffering? Is this what Tzahal soldiers died for? Is this being "free in our land?"
It was not too many years ago that Israeli society still held itself to a higher standard. In the 1960s when British rock legend Cliff Richard performed here, parents were outraged at the negative effect on Jewish children. Shortly thereafter, the Beatles were refused entry into Israel ― on the grounds of being a subversive influence. Today, this seems tame by comparison. And whether one agrees or disagrees with that decision is not the point. The issue is that Israel ― the model of morality for world Jewry, and the model for all humanity ― had taken a stand.
We have built our land so beautifully and have achieved so much. But do we want to succeed like the other nations, if "success" is defined by 80 cable channels and McDonalds? The image of kibbutzniks dancing around the campfire has faded into stadiums thumping with heavy metal music.
Achad HaAm called Israel "the historic center of a roving spiritual idea." The world is watching. And it's God's good Name on the line. It's up to us.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons