TO PROFANE OR TO SANCTIFY – “Emor” – Lev. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
The section called “Emor” – literally “Say!” – will be read this coming Shabat in traditional congregations outside of Israel. It was read last Shabat in Israel and in Reform congregations elsewhere. Just a calendar discrepancy. Personally, of course, I feel a special connection to “Emor” because I read this section at my own Bar Mitzvah. That was a long time ago, but the message of this reading rings just as strongly in my ears today.
Opening with some detailed rules and regulations for the priests – the Cohanim, Aaron’s sons and descendants – from their personal conduct to their sacrificial duties, and continuing with the entire sequence of the Jewish religious calendar, “Emor” is quoted at other times of the year besides these two weeks. In Chapter 23, for example, we read the sequence of counting the Omer, the very period we are in right now, leading us from the freedom holiday of Passover to the anniversary of becoming a nation on Shavuot. Which by the way always comes at the same time in Israel or outside of it.
Between these two sections, we find two short sentences that give all these laws their basis. They come at the end of Chapter 22. Verse 31 says: “Keep my commandments and do them; I am G-d.” And verse 32 adds: “Do not profane My holy name, and I will be sanctified among the Israelites; I am G-d who sanctifies you.” Divinely inspired rules that, if we follow, enable us to achieve Kiddush haShem – sanctifying the divine name. Violating those rules amounts to khillul haShem – profaning that name.
Violations can take many forms, some more obvious than others. For example, our Torah instructs us to use true measurements – weights, lengths, coins, all must be accurate. Prevent cheating. In legal disputes we are cautioned to do justice “justly.” Tricking a witness in a trial, or manufacturing evidence against a litigant – even if you deeply believe him guilty – is unfair, and therefore prohibited. Acceptable conduct in family affairs has countless Mitzvos to be observed, including the rights and duties of wife and husband to each other, of parents and children to each other, and of all to the care of ill and dead family members. Crime and punishment get dealt with in this section too. “One who strikes [wounds or kills] an animal shall pay for the damage. One who kills a human shall die.” But it takes two eye witnesses to convict the killer.
All these and many more Mitzvos can be fulfilled – or violated. Violating a principle of conduct in business, particularly when dealing with Gentiles, can bring serious trouble to the entire community. Every Jewish businessman carries the responsibility for the good or bad effect of his actions on all his people. The Hertz commentary quotes the story of the fellow in the boat drilling a hole under his seat. It’s only under his seat, but all will drown. A Jewish crook can give an open door to anti-Semites. That is definitely khillul haShem. And what about the opposite? Suppose we are doing right?
Our commentators frequently relate Kiddush haShem to Kiddush hakhayim – sanctifying life. Throughout our history, tragic events occurred that caused pious heroes to give up their lives for their faith, and they are said to have died al Kiddush haShem – for the sake of sanctifying the divine name. Whether they had a choice or not. Inquisitors demanded: “Convert or die.” Nazis and jihadis offer no alternative: “Kill the Jews!” Their victims are mourned with the righteous.
All-important in this principle is not death but life. Living in such a way as to sanctify the name of the G-d we worship involves fulfilling Mitzvos. From observing the occasions of our calendar – Sabbath, festivals, matzoh on Passover or fasting on Yom Kippur – to how we interact with other human beings, Jewish or Gentile. How we live our daily lives makes us aware of those Mitzvos, and carrying them out builds our character. Do we deal honestly in business? Do we respect our elders? Do we teach our children Torah? Do we help the poor? Do we support just causes? It is that kind of life that sanctifies G-d’s name. That kind of behavior sanctifies our lives. That is Kiddush haShem. Kiddush hakhayyim too.
This week and every week, every day, let the words of “Emor” remind us of our ongoing choice: profane or sanctify. Judaism offers us some practical help to make our lives count.