Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Emor 2007

The Torah Portion, Emor, read a couple of weeks aga, deals with a number of things all around the theme of holiness – the regulations for the Priests and the Sanctuary, the issues of Chillul Hashem – profaning God’s name – and Kiddush Hashem – sanctifying God’s name, the Holy Days (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot as well as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), the Ner Tamid or eternal light and the altar bread for the Temple. It also contains one of the best known parts of the Torah, what is called in Latin the Lex Talionis or Law of Retaliation, an eye for an eye, and the penalties for blasphemy.

In studying the commentary on this parsha, one word kept coming up; honor in Hebrew Kavod. The overarching theme of this parsha and the parashot around it is holiness – here specifically the holiness of God’s name, the holiness of the holidays and of justice. So we have to ask, what is the relationship of holiness and honor?

I keep coming back to the Exodus Chapter 19: Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. While we could read this as God offering an incentive for following God’s commandments, the Rabbis have generally taken it as a commandment – indeed the preceding week’s Parsha, Kedoshim, begins You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy. Now in Emor we are enjoined against Chillul Hashem and directed toward Kiddush Hashem – away from dishonoring God’s name and toward sanctifying it – making it holy.

But how can we make God’s name holy? We are told over and over again that God’s name is holy – so holy that we cannot know God’s true name, represented by the tetragrammaton יהוה and only refer to God by various titles and metaphors. I think the connection lies in kavod – honor. When we honor God’s name by our actions we respect the holiness of God’s name by making ourselves more holy, and when we dishonor God’s name we tarnish the holiness of God’s name in others’ eyes and make ourselves less holy.

“Chillul Hashem” means “Desecration of G-d’s Name.” Colloquially, it refers to anything that gives God, Judaism, Torah/Mitzvot or Jews a bad name and a bad reputation.
But in a stricter, legal sense, it refers to when a Jew is faced with the choice of committing one of the three cardinal sins - accepting another god or religion, committing murder, or engaging in certain illicit sexual relations – with refusal to do these meaning they will be killed , Chillul Hashem consists in choosing survival over doing what is required.. Why is this Chillul Hashem? Why should he die? Because belief in the one God, respect for human life, and sexual decency are the three core pillars of society, and a person giving in to these is essentially saying that the Truth is not really the truth after all.

Very importantly, these three are the ONLY Torah laws that a Jew must die for. If your life depended on it, you may eat non-Kosher, steal, violate the Shabbat or smack your best friend, because they’re not societal pillars like those Big Three.
Chillul Hashem is more loosely translated as a desecration of G-d's name. However, the Orchos Tzaddikim, an anonymous classic work on Jewish ethics, explains that a chillul Hashem is when someone does something wrong, and other people take example from him and also do wrong. This teaches us a powerful life lesson: The more a person is looked up to, be it in spiritual, business, or social circles, the more careful he must be not to set the wrong example.
As a 14th century Torah commentary points out, the answer is in this week’s parsha when God says And ye shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the LORD who hallow you. In other words one can get partial atonement for a chillul Hashem by performing a kiddush Hashem - by making a public sanctification of G-d's name. A kiddush Hashem is the opposite of a chillul Hashem. So if a chillul Hashem is doing a wrong action which others will take example from and follow, a kiddush Hashem would be doing a correct action which others see and are inspired by to do likewise.
But so often in my work I talk with people about leadership and their response is “but I’m not a leader – no one follows my example.” In fact, though, all of us have the opportunity to set an example for others. If we notice that we’ve been undercharged in the super market and we don’t go back to have it corrected just as we would have done if we were overcharged, we are setting an example for our children, our friends, and anyone around us. As importantly, psychologists know that we are “setting an example” for ourselves – when we commit a chillul Hashem, large or small, we betray ourselves, and psychologically we then have to justify that by rationalizing it so that we are right and, inevitably, others are wrong – then the next time we are in a similar situation we are more likely to repeat our actions, compounding the aveirah.

This is a tough row to hoe. The Rabbis point out that, contrary to our modern relativistic view, there is no gray here – every act, however small is either a chillul Hashem or a Kiddush Hashem. Every act is either honorable or dishonorable. As I often point out, I think that halachic Jews have it easier in this regard. Just about every part of everyday life is covered by some halacha, by at least one of the 613 mitzvot, and so they have a clear compass to guide them. For Progressive or Reform Jews, though, we must find our own moral compass and this requires something very difficult for many people – it requires being true to ourselves and not buying our own, very reasonable, rationalizations. In Hamlet, Polonius’ last piece of advice to Laertes is This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. This really says it all –the only way we can commit Chllul Hashem is to be untrue to – to ignore and rationalize away – what in our own hearts we know is the right thing to do.

So in the last analysis I think that Kedusha – holiness and Kavod – honor are the same thing. When we act honorably, that is Kiddush Hashem, whether it is the extreme of “death before dishonor” or the small act of kindness or justice or charity.

1 comment:

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