This portion contains one of the fundamental precepts of the Torah, namely the mitzvah of Kiddush Ha-Shem or sanctification of God’s name, and its opposite, the prohibition to desecrate God’s name (Chillul Ha-Shem): “And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel” (Leviticus 22:32).
Sadly, through the Jewish experience of persecution, the term Kiddush Ha-Shem has become synonymous with martyrdom. The Jew, when challenged by the persecutor to choose either life at the cost of renouncing Judaism, or death, is called upon by the Torah to make the ultimate sacrifice. For a life devoid of our major principles is not worth living.
But in traditional sources the concept of Kiddush Ha-Shem has much wider implications. The commentators ask: “Surely it is impossible for man actually to profane or sanctify God’s name?” The answer given is that the desecration and sanctification refer to the acknowledgment of God in this world. A Chillul Ha-Shem decreases man’s recognition of the divine, while a Kiddush Ha-Shem increases his appreciation of the Almighty.
Contrary to common opinion, the sin of Chillul Ha-Shem also refers to transgressions committed in private when they are carried out with contempt for God and His Torah.
It is often thought that it applies only when a wrongful act is done by a Jew against a non-Jew, or when a scandal involving a Jew becomes public knowledge, like the infamous Bernie Madoff case in recent times. But it actually also applies to a Jew who behaves wrongly in a Jewish environment.
Indeed, the rabbis illustrate this point in this very context: If a person studies the Torah, but his behavior is unbecoming or his business dealings dishonest, then what do people say about him? Woe to so-and-so who studies the Torah; happy are the people who have not studied Torah! How despicable is his manner; how corrupted are his ways!
Conversely, when a Jew who studies the Torah deals kindly with his fellow man and behaves honestly in business, the Talmud states that his example will be praised by mankind and the wholesomeness of the Torah promoted.
Granted a choice, let us firmly choose Torah’s values and therefore affirm God’s sublime name through life.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)