In this week’s parsha, Emor, God gives the command to our ancestors, “Do not desecrate my holy name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord, who made you holy…” (Leviticus 22:32)
Over the course of time, Judaism extracted two vital principles from this commandment. The first is ‘chillul Hashem,’ the prohibition against desecrating God’s name. The second is its opposite, ‘Kiddush Hashem’, where we are instructed to sanctify God’s name.
Our rabbis ask a very direct question: How could anything that we do, in a practical sense, either desecrate or sanctify God’s name? Inherent in their question is a deeper, theological one, which is: how can anything that we (regular people, Jews) do affect our God-most-high? That we could do anything that would affect God seems somewhat counter-intuitive.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z’l) teaches us that that our rabbis conclude an answer that is both simple, and profound.
It is the conduct of the Jewish people that determines how we are perceived (by others), and thus, how our God (whom we worship) is perceived.
When we, as Jews, conduct ourselves at the highest moral level (personally, with our family, in business, in public), this reflects well (not only) on us as Jews, but on God; thus, ‘sanctifying’ God’s name.
And, when we, as Jews, conduct ourselves poorly, this then reflects poorly on all Jews, and on God; thus ‘desecrating’ God’s name.
Often, I am most struck how empowering Judaism is as a religion. We put the onus of our outcomes on our choices and emphasize doing what is ‘right’ over what is ‘easy’ or ‘profitable’, or ‘popular’. To be sure, these are aspirational, but our religion assures us that our moral aspirations, and the world that could be, are obtainable. To say that our behavior effects more than ourselves (dianu) but that it even effects how God is perceived is our way of raising the stakes of how we choose to walk through life, and interact with the world around us, even higher.