Rabbi Kenter's Musings

From the Rabbi's Desk
AJ Shabbat Musings: Parshat Emor 5779 
Friday, May 17, 2019  |  12 Iyar 5779

Almost exactly in the middle of the Torah reading for Saturday morning, we encounter what some have called the bottom line of Judaism:

You are to keep my commandments, and observe them, I am ADONAI!
You are not to profane my holy name, that I may be hallowed amid the Children of Israel;
I am ADONAI, the-one-who-hallows-you, who is bringing you out of the land of Egypt, to be for you a God, I am ADONAI!

From this parasha emerges the key Jewish value of kiddush Ha-Shem, the sanctification of God's name exhorting ethical or ritual behavior that brings praise, honor, dignity and devotion to God. Its polar opposite is hillul Ha-Shem: any behavior, be it ethical or ritual, that insults, dishonors or disgraces God.
Some 1800 years ago, our Sages identified three types of behavior with kiddush ha-Shem:

  • Dying for God
  • Living for God
  • Sanctifying God

Because of the commandment "these are the commandment by which you shall live" [Deuteronomy 8:1], our ancient rabbis insisted that with the exception of murder, unchastity, and idolatry, in most instances one was to transgress a commandment rather than to put one's life literally on the line. 
Jacob Katz noted years ago in his Exclusivism and Tolerance and Danny Boyarin pointed out in his Dying for God, that from the third century through the medieval period, kiddush ha-Shem, martyrdom, indicated loyalty and devotion within both the early Jewish and Christian communities. One of the major differentiations between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities would be in their approaches to martyrdom: Jews in Ashkenaz (western, central and eastern Europe) chose to bear witness to their own religion rather than submit to Christianity; Sephardic Jews chose to go underground, publicly pretending to be Christians while privately practicing their Judaism.
Living for God was the essence of rabbinic Judaism and fundamental to its religious and social system, acting and behaving in ways that brought honor and praise to the God of Israel, and by extension to the Jewish people, one fulfilled the mitzvah of kiddush ha-Shem.
A classic case is brought by Dr. Joseph Hertz in his commentary, from Devarim Rabbah 3:3: Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who lived in the first century before the common era, purchased an ass from a non-Jew. When his disciples came, they found a jewel suspended from its neck and said to him, "Master, "The blessing of the Lord makes one rich! [citing Proverbs 10:22]." He replied to them, "I purchased an ass -- I did not purchase a precious stone." He went and returned the precious stone to the non-Jew, who afterwards would say "Barukh Adonai, Elohei Shimon ben Shetah! Praised be the Lord, the God of Shimon ben Shetah!"
Throughout much of our history, we Jews were motivated and compelled to maintain a higher ethical standard, not simply because it was an embarrassment if we were to be caught, but because it would have brought dishonor to God. The Sages have God say, "When you do my will, my divinity is increased; when you violate it, it is lessened."
Above the chapel Ark is written: Da lifnei mi atah omed, know before Whom you stand.
In our own day, with secularism rampant and triumphant personal autonomy, every mitzvah, every commandment fulfilled is an act of kiddush ha-Shem, living for God, publicly proclaiming through one's life choices that one is a Jew: observing Shabbat rather than attending soccer practice or shopping or simply sleeping in; following the dietary laws -- inside and outside of the house; attending services on holidays in addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even if they fall on a work- or school-day; choosing for honesty, integrity, and  social justice in all of our acts and actions.
Sanctifying God through prayer is the final way in which we fulfill kiddush ha-Shem, by making it possible for the community to publicly proclaim God's kedusha, God's holiness, assuring a morning and evening mincha and ma'ariv minyan, by answering "amen" and "yehay sh'mai rabbah" to the kaddish we affirm God's holiness.
I recall still my first lesson in this aspect of kiddush ha-Shem. I was at a morning minyan in my parents' shul. Perhaps I was 14, maybe still 13. I was angered at one of the minyannaires for some perceived slight -- not at all uncommon for an adolescent, and I was going to show him. He was davenning and when it came time for the Kaddish I did not say amen to his Kaddish. Herman David, a noble elderly man who had made the morning minyan his special project, came up to me after services and gently told me, "I know you are mad at Mr. X, and you are probably right to be angry, but you know, Barry, when you don't say 'Amen' to another's brach it takes away holiness from God."

During kedusha and kaddish it detracts from God's holiness when we walk around, talk, or in other ways detract from the sacredness of these moments during which we proclaim God's kedushah. It is almost as if we have come into the presence of a sovereign ruler, having worked hard to get an invitation into the palace in the first place, and have then lost our time for an audience, for a brief, intimate discussion, because we have behaved disrespectfully -- da lifnei mi atah omed, know before Whom you stand.

We American Jews have much for which to be thankful: the liberties, freedoms, and privileges of America are such that we are not asked to die for God -- those same liberties, freedoms, and privileges mandate and necessitate that we live for God and that we sanctify God's name constantly.
Forty-five years ago, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Belonging to Israel is in itself a spiritual act. It is utterly inconvenient to be a Jew. The very survival of our people is a kiddush ha-Shem. We live in spite of peril. Our very existence is a refusal to surrender to normalcy, to security, and to comfort. Experts in assimilation, the Jews could have disappeared even before the names of the modern nations were known.

Our continued existence is a kiddush ha-Shem, a sanctification of the name of God. Let us so live that our lives reflect that holiness.

Rabbi Barry A. Kenter