On Being a Kiddush Hashem

May 4, 2020

5 min read


Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

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This week’s Torah portion, Emor, formulates this calling as a specific mitzvah: “…do not desecrate My holy name. And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel. I am Hashem who sanctifies you.” (Vayikra 22:33) This is known as the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem – sanctifying God’s name.

How do we go about it? We live in a world of confusion and spiritual darkness. The light of truth is hidden, God’s presence concealed. In this murky existence, how do we promote God’s name and God’s Torah in the world?

One way is by what we say. Proclaiming God’s greatness in a public forum – through communal prayer, for example. Indeed, our prayer services are structured in such a way as to facilitate this. We have the Kedusha, the special prayer recited loudly and responsively in the repetition of the Amidah, evoking the exalted dialogue of the angels and their praise of the Creator of the universe.

We also have Kaddish, a highly impassioned declaration of God’s greatness, recited at various high points in the service. Kaddish is recited by the one who leads the service, but also by mourners. It’s an extraordinary thing. People who have lost loved ones, and whose world has become empty as a result of their bereavement, fill the world with – and find solace in – a declaration of God’s greatness. Crucially, both the Kedusha and Kaddish are only recited in public, in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of 10 men.

It’s important to note that our responsibility to declare the presence of God in the world begins with our families. Every Friday night when we say Kiddush, we proclaim loudly and publicly that God created the world and that He took us out of Egypt and He gave us His Torah as a guide to life. Similarly, each of the festivals is a testimony to God’s miracles throughout history: Pesach is about the miracles of the Exodus; Shavuot is about the miraculous revelation at Mount Sinai; and Sukkot is about the miracles that sustained us in the desert.

We also spread a positive message about Hashem and His Torah through our words of teaching Torah. The Rambam explains the mitzvah of learning Torah extends to teaching Torah. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, there is an obligation to “establish many students”. The Tiferet Yisrael, in his commentary on that Mishna, says this applies not only to “professional” teachers and rabbis, but to every Jew. We are all called on to spread the light of Torah to as many people as possible. The verse in Proverbs says: “For the mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light.” The Gemara in Sotah says this world can be compared to a dark forest. As we walk through it, we are confronted with obstacles and confusion, our every step fraught with danger and uncertainty. But, it is the light of Torah that illuminates the path. And we have a responsibility to spread that light.

The mitzvah of kiddush Hashem goes beyond what we say. Even more important is what we do, how we behave. We don’t just believe in God, or preach God, we live His values and principles. The Gemara (Yoma 86a) puts it succinctly: “Make the name of Heaven beloved through you.” In other words, we are called on to bring the people we encounter to an appreciation of, and ultimately, a closeness to, God, through our living example.

The Gemara goes on to explain what this means – a person who is associated with Torah living, displays unimpeachable integrity in his dealings with others, and speaks gently to everyone at all times. Says the Gemara, when we behave in ways that inspire others, we fulfil the verse: “Through you, I will be glorified.” The Gemara adds a remarkable caveat regarding a person who is learned in Torah but does not behave with integrity and does not speak gently to people: such a person brings God’s reputation into disrepute. From this Gemara, it emerges that the most powerful way to promote the name of

God in the world is through the example of our own behaviour.

This idea – that we are charged with carrying the name of Hashem in the world through the way we live our lives – places a solemn responsibility on all of us. And it makes us partners with our Creator in a very real sense. Any partnership is defined by two parties working together to serve a common interest, a common set of objectives. God wants to spread truth and light in the world, and calls on us to be His partners in this endeavour. We carry out this sacred charge by being living examples of the goodness and the decency and the uprightness and the inspiration that accompanies a Torah life, thereby ensuring people have a favourable impression of God and His Torah.

Abraham is our standard bearer in this regard. He spread the light of Godliness in a world of pagan idolatry, and influenced countless people. He did so through his kindness and his resolute uprightness, demonstrated through so many examples in his life. He went out to battle to save his nephew Lot and others who had been captured in war, but refused to take any of the spoils of the war. He kept his tent open on all sides, welcoming wayfarers no matter who they were and where they came from. He was a pillar of light and compassion. He was unerringly straight and ethical in his business dealings. And as his children, we are called on to live in the same way.

So far, we have looked at public declarations and living by example as the means to fulfil the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem. There is a third way we can bring about kiddush Hashem in the world, and that is through self-sacrifice.

The Rambam, based on the Talmud, says the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem is fulfilled when a person is placed in a situation where they have to give up their life for the sake of God. We know there is the sacrosanct Torah principle of pikuach nefesh, which means in order to save a life virtually all of the commandments are set aside. But there are exceptions. If one of the three “cardinal” sins – idolatry, murder and sexual immorality – is involved, then a person must give up their life rather than transgress them. And, actually, during a period in which the Jewish people and the Jewish way of life is under systemised attack, it is a great mitzvah to give one’s life for the cause, even under other circumstances. In fact, this is the ultimate expression of kiddush Hashem; a brave declaration of total dedication, love and trust, a visceral demonstration that there is nothing more important than living in accordance with God’s values and with our ultimate purpose in life.

In every respect the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem is deeply transformational. It transforms us into people who look to promote truth and values and goodness in the world, who embrace responsibility for spreading light and the love of God in the world. And, by cultivating a consciousness for how we are perceived by others, we learn to moderate our behaviour and ensure our conduct always meets the highest ethical standards. It transforms us into people who are conscious and aware of how we are perceived by others. This involves empathy to understand how others perceive us and to realise that every action we perform is being judged, and not only are we being judged, but Hashem and His Torah are being judged. Of course, living with an awareness of what our priorities are in life, and being prepared to sacrifice for our highest values, also changes us in profound ways.

The ultimate vision of kiddush Hashem finds its expression in the attainment of the Divine promise for the climax of history, of a world incandescent with God’s light, saturated with the knowledge of His presence, which will one day be fulfilled with the coming of the Mashiach. As the prophet Isaiah says: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem like the waters that cover it.” This Final Redemption for the world is described by the Rambam as a time with “no famine, no wars, no jealousy and competition”, a time in which “goodness will be abundant and all of the delicacies will be available as the dust, and the only occupation in the world will be to know Hashem”. In other words – a world in a constant state of kiddush Hashem.

Ultimately, kiddush Hashem is about bringing the world closer to this vision of a world filled with God’s light and love and values, saturated with the closeness of His presence.

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