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Emor 5783 - Pursuing Kiddush HaShem

May 6, 2023 - 15 Iyar, 5783

When I hear names like Bernie Madoff and Harvey Weinstein, I cringe not just because of their acts (wide-ranging financial crimes and sexual abuse), but also because of what their names do to the public perception of Jews and Judaism. As both men were (and are) openly and proudly Jewish, both men have fed into the stereotype of Jews seizing power through money and media. When Jews so publicly act with disregard to God and the rest of humanity, they make God and us, their fellow Jews, look bad. Through their actions and reputations, they endanger our lives. They commit hillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name.

In Parashat Emor, we are commanded not to desecrate God’s holy name:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ מִצְוֺתַ֔י וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה׳׃

וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קׇדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲנִ֥י ה׳ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃

הַמּוֹצִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י ה׳׃

And you shall keep/guard my commandments, and you shall do them - I am Adonai. And do not profane my holy name, and I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel - I am Adonai, who sanctifies you, who takes you out of the land of Egypt to be your God - I am Adonai (Leviticus 22:31-33).

By keeping God’s commandments, both the negative and positive, the moral and ritual, we sanctify God’s name and the name of our Jewish people. We make ourselves look good. By not only going against God’s commandments, but doing so publicly, as Jews, we profane God’s name and the name of the Jewish people. As our text reminds us, we choose to sanctify God’s name in gratitude for the freedom God gave us in Egypt and continues to give us each day.

Especially in this community with so few Jews, every single one of us represents the Jewish people to the outside world. Every single one of us has the chance to represent the Jewish people as wise and compassionate, and every single one of us has the same chance to represent the Jewish people as dishonest and self-centered. For most of us, on most days, we reside somewhere in the middle. After all, we are human. And yet, along with our constant, imperfect striving to improve our relationship with God and mitzvot, we can each take concrete steps towards kiddush Hashem, honoring God’s name.

First, we must openly speak about and demonstrate our Jewish pride. We can talk about the incredible success of world Jewry - the 20% of Nobel Laureates who are Jewish, the rich history of Jewish actors and musicians, and our position as the most educated, on average, of all the world’s religious groups. We speak about our positive experiences with Judaism - our memories of celebrating seder with family, the friends we’ve made at synagogue, and the values that have inspired us to pursue the professions and philanthropy we have. As we have spoken about previously, for those who feel comfortable, we may wear a kippah and tzitzit, and for those who do not, a Star of David necklace or a Camp Shalom t-shirt! When meetings are scheduled on Jewish holidays, we tell teachers and supervisors about that holiday to show that our Judaism is a priority for us and for whoever else from the Jewish community may not be speaking up.

When we hear a negative Jewish stereotype, we let the speaker know about our Judaism and how such statements affect us personally. Remember that sometimes, the speaker doesn’t know that her statement is negative or offensive. When we call that person out, we let them know not only that Jews live in this community, but also that we are proud of our heritage and beliefs. 

Most importantly, to honor God in the ways in which we believe God asks us, we have to be mensches. Although none of us can ever be perfect, we have to be a community known for our generosity, for the every-day deeds we do to improve the lives of the people we meet. Our parashiyot this week and last command us to leave the corners of our fields for the poor, to pay people on time, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, but as we have learned before, our Jewish tradition also asks us to go above and beyond. By openly practicing mitzvot, and really, by being decent human beings, we make God and the Jewish people look good; we perform kiddush Hashem and combat the hillul Hashem, the disgrace of God’s name that just a few of our most public Jews have created.

At the end of our parashah, in the middle of a fight, a man curses God’s name and is punished with a fatal stoning from the entire community. While I certainly don’t condone communal stoning, the communal nature of his punishment reflects the public power of one Jewish individual’s actions. What I do in public reflects on your reputation, and ultimately, your safety as a Jew in a world with a history of precarious attitudes towards our people. How each of us acts in public affects how the world sees the God we know to be true, ours, and one. Thank goodness the Bernie Madoffs and Harvey Weinsteins of the world are accompanied by the Barbara Streisands, the Albert Einsteins, and the Abraham Joshua Heschels. Through kiddush HaShem, every day, they sought and we seek to fulfill the call of Isaiah, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified!” (Is. 49:3). 

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784