By Allan Myers
At the end of the section of this week’s parasha dealing with the regulations concerning priests, comes the following verse:
“You shall not profane My Holy Name, but I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.”
This tells us not to engage in chillul Hashem – profaning God’s name.
The question is, how can we, who are not holy, possibly be able to profane or indeed sanctify God’s name? Surely, if we sanctify God, we are merely imitating Him. God surely doesn’t have to rely on us for His holiness.
Nechama Leibovitz says that you have to distinguish between the holiness of God and the holiness of His name. We do things in God’s name when we realize that we are insignificant in God’s presence and that He has sovereign power over us.
The Midrash in Pesikta de Rav Kahana sees God telling us: “You are my witnesses…that before me no God had been formed, neither shall there be any after me”. According to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, God is saying: “If you are my witnesses, then I am He but if you are not my witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God”. In other words, God’s power can only be appreciated if there is someone to see it, someone to hear it or someone to feel it.
How do you carry out that task of sanctifying God’s name and being a witness to his great might and power? By only living as a witness to him and not engaging in unethical activities, because they profane God’s name.
In extreme circumstances, this can mean that we have to give up our life rather than profane God’s name. Usually, we can break any law in order to preserve a life, but we are never allowed to engage in idolatry or immorality. And, even though the Torah says chai b’hem – you shall live by the commandments – in other words, don’t carry out any mitzvah if it would endanger life, this principle is superseded if it would cause us to commit murder or engage in idolatry or immorality. You can’t even say that you are doing it in order to preserve a person’s life. Even if you think you could disingenuously worship an idol, you must refuse – otherwise your persecutor might think that you had given up Judaism.
None of us knows how we would react if forced to do something which is a chillul Hashem. I’m sure I wouldn’t be strong enough to refuse to do it. But many of us are only here because somebody refused to give up their Judaism – they refused to be downtrodden but chose, instead, to find a better place to live, whether that place was Canaan rather than Egypt, Babylon rather than Judea, Italy rather than Spain, Russia rather than Germany or Britain rather than Russia.
We should never forget that our forebears had to make a choice that, happily, most of us here never have to make – to choose life over persecution.
Allan Myers is a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue