These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Kiddush Hashem (Sanctific​ation of God’s Name) Today

Posted on May 9, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

I feel very privileged to write to you today after my first week back at Pardes. On numerous occasions this week, I have been reminded of the incredible blessing to learn Torah full time, from such dedicated and wise teachers and classmates, and of course, in my beloved Jerusalem. And yet, this week my immediate community at Pardes and the collective Jewish world carried a somber tone as we commemorated the losses of the Holocaust. It is my hope that this week’s dvar Torah will honour the memory of those who were killed in the Holocaust. May their memories be for a blessing.

Parshat Emor: Kiddush Hashem (Sanctifying of God’s Name) Today

Jews of the Holocaust paid the highest price and fulfilled the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, which literally means “sanctification of God’s name”, but is often used to connote martyrdom. They were separated from other populations; they elevated/sanctified their lives in the most profound sense: namely they died because of their distinct identity, their Jewishness. (See last week’s dvar Torah for more about the concept of kadosh, i.e. distinct, separate, “holy”.)

Today many of us are blessed to live in societies which do not discriminate or attack us based on our Jewish affiliations. So how are we to fulfill this commandment of kiddush Hashem without martyring ourselves, God forbid? Is this mitzvah exclusive to such horrendous circumstances as the Holocaust?

Yes, this is an extremely loaded ideological, emotional (and theological) question which many of us face in light of this week’s commemoration of the Jews and Jewish life that was eradicated in the Holocaust. Yet, as I sit through a memorial service at Pardes to pay tribute to those lost in the ghettos, fighting in the resistance, killed in the crematoria, I feel uncomfortable and inadequate. Who/what am I worth that I deserve to survive? Why did my family live while another Jew’s fate brought such brutal and premature death? How am I to go on and live my life now without guilt?

When I study poetry that mourns the lost of European Jewry, I feel that there is no way I can “sanctify God’s name” in the same way that they did and call my deeds examples of kiddush Hashem! I feel frozen. I feel alone.

I think this week’s parsha, Parshat Emor, is aware of this question and the difficulties posed in this question. Some Jews in history were able to give up their lives either by choice (I use this term of ‘choice’ with hesitation because many Jews did NOT actively decide to martyr themselves in the Holocaust) or by cruel force.

Nevertheless, in Parshat Emor we are commanded to do these three things:

  1. keep the mitzvot of the Torah (verse 31)
  2. not desecrate God’s distinct name (verse 32)
  3. to be “sanctified” (or elevated) among Israel (verse 32)

לא  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם:  אֲנִי, ה

31 And you shall keep My commandments, and do them: I am the LORD.

לב  וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אֲנִי ה’, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם

32 And you shall not profane My kadosh name; but I will be sanctified among the children of Israel: I am the LORD who sanctified you,

לג  הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים:  אֲנִי, ה

33 that brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD.    (Leviticus 22:31-33)

But why is the Exodus from Egypt referenced following this commandment, in all its parts?

It seems to me that the chronology of these commandments is intentional and instructive in answering our questions. What do I mean? The Torah instructs the reader to keep and safeguard the mitzvot of the Torah. A pretty basic command but definitely a critical starting point. This is Step A.

Then, Step B: Once there must be fundamental buy-in to the Torah’s code of conduct, the Torah writes “not to desecrate God’s name”. In other words, do no commit acts that compromise God’s reputation (i.e. the highest moral values and principles) in the world. Refrain from mistreating one’s fellow and performing rituals which misrepresent those values. (Here, I am making the claim that there are ‘higher values’ behind every ritual; but this is complex and something that I cannot discuss fully here.)

Finally, one can reach Step C. Once a person has accepted upon him/herself the responsibility of keeping the Torah and upholding its values, and overcoming the temptations to compromise those values and thereby misrepresent God in the world, the natural consequence is that one has sanctified God’s name in the world. One has thereby performed a kiddush Hashem. How so?

The last verse of this section of the parsha (verse 33) reminds us that God took us out of Egypt in order to grant us freedom. The objective of the Exodus was after all for the Jewish People to no longer live under oppressive regimes and be granted free choice. But with freedom comes great responsibility! (Please excuse my tweaking of the infamous Spiderman.)

Today, we can and must certainly mourn the loss of vibrant Jewish life and the Jewish lives of the Holocaust and other tragedies. But we cannot let their fate haunt us and prevent us from living. We must appreciate the freedom we have been granted, both physical and spiritual, just as we did at the Exodus. Like Seder Night, we must now consider the tremendous opportunities which freedom affords us and act in ways which do not abuse that freedom — religious, social and/or religious.

And so, when I think about those questions of “why did my family deserve to live and other Jews deserved to die?”, I have no answers. But I can say this: I humbly embrace the physical freedom and spiritual liberty that I’ve been granted today and thus must use it responsibly.

I urge us all to honour the memory of those killed in the Holocaust and Israel’s fallen soldiers by recognizing our spiritual and physical freedom and exercising those liberties responsibly.

Shabbat Shalom,