Living in the World's View
Chapter 4, Mishna 5(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Yochanan ben (son of) Beroka said: Whoever desecrates the Name of
Heaven in secret will be paid back in public. Whether one acts
unintentionally or intentionally, [both are accountable] regarding the
desecration of the Name."
This week's mishna discusses the severity of desecrating G-d's Name --
"Chillul Hashem" in the language of the Sages (we'll use the Hebrew term
below). In the vernacular, the term "Chillul Hashem" is understood to refer
to public or conspicuous misbehavior on the part of Jews. When a Jew,
especially a visibly Orthodox one, publicly sins or otherwise creates a
scene, the image of the Jew and Judaism is lowered in the eyes of the
onlookers -- both Jew and Gentile. When an observant Jew (in dress, if not
in behavior) is caught in a money-laundering or insider-trading scheme (and
the press is always gleefully there to report it), or if Israel is condemned
for human-rights abuses (often by countries which routinely open fire on
their own unarmed civilians and by a press which can never seem to find any
other injustices in the world to report), it not only reflects on the Jewish
people (and certainly not only on the individual sinner). Tragically, it
casts a negative light on the very Torah the Jew are supposed to being
upholding and ultimately, it reflects badly on G-d Himself.
It has been wisely observed that Gentiles who are constantly seeking and
noticing the bad in Jews -- even in very minor or mundane matters such as
annoying personal habits -- are truly seeking to invalidate G-d Himself.
They don't want to hear the message Judaism carries to the world -- that
there is an all-knowing G-d who created man for a purpose and who will
ultimately judge him for his every deed. And they will seek any means --
whether relevant or not -- of discrediting the nation which carries that
message. Antisemitism is not simply a reaction to Jewish "pushiness", or to
our capitalism, Communism, or racial inferiority. It is because the world
recognizes -- but refuses to admit -- that we alone bear the truth.
Perhaps for this reason, Jews have typically been exceedingly concerned with
Chillul Hashem -- of "sticking out" and shaming ourselves in the eyes of the
world. This might be simply because we're overly self-conscious, and afraid
of rejection at the hands of the Gentiles. But I believe we also have an
instinctive sense that the message we bear is far too critical to be
compromised and ignored. We must be in the good graces of the world at
large. We carry the message of monotheism and of an all-knowing and
all-caring G-d. And it is one all mankind must ultimately embrace. And so,
we must not leave ourselves open to criticism -- of any sort. If mankind
finds even the flimsiest excuse to cast off our message, we will have failed
in our mission in the most fundamental manner.
While all of the above is valid, it does not reach the root of the
definition of Chillul Hashem. Our mishna makes it clear that Chillul Hashem
is not limited to sins done in the public's eye. Our mishna began: "Anyone
who desecrates the Name of Heaven *in private*...." (To be fair, at least
one of the commentators does not understand "in private" literally for this
Rather, the idea is as follows. The Hebrew world "chillul" relates to the
word "chalal" -- hollow or empty space. (It's also used in Modern Hebrew for
outer space.) Any action which "empties" G-d's Presence from this world --
which makes Him less revealed -- is a form of Chillul Hashem. If a person
sins, even in private, to some extent he is driving away G-d's Presence. G-d
does not dwell where there is immorality or impurity: "And there shall not
be among you a matter of nakedness, and He shall turn away from you"
But there are sins and there are sins. If a person sins out of temptation,
out of an inability to restrain himself, it does make G-d Presence just a
little less perceptible. But okay -- nobody's perfect. We knew G-d was there
but we succumbed to our all-too-human desires. Most sins are not a blatant
denial of an omnipresent G-d. I know I should be a better Jew, but sometimes
I just can't help myself.
But let's say a person sins not through a lack of control but from a sense
of disregard and denial. The negative act just didn't seem significant
enough to be worth bothering to avoid. "C'mon, does G-d *really* care if I
carry my handkerchief 10 feet to the door of my apartment on the Sabbath?
Does He *really* insist I have two sets of dishes? Doesn't He have more
'important' things to worry about?" I've heard that one (sometimes even
subconsciously within myself) far too many times. And this is a denial of
G-d's existence in the most profound manner -- even if the issue under
question is in fact not that critical. Judaism teaches us that G-d is
omnipresent, that He cares about our actions, and that He is actively
involved in shaping our lives (as well as the course of world history). If a
person sins out of a sense of apathy, of rejection of this notion -- even in
the innermost recesses of his heart -- he has, G-d forbid, committed the
most profound act of Chillul Hashem.
And, our mishna continues, if someone desecrates G-d's Name in private, G-d
will punish him in public. For when we make G-d's Presence less visible, He
responds in a manner all too appropriate: He *makes* His Presence known --
in grand and public fashion. To set the world back on course (if we're
fortunate enough for G-d to pick up after our mistakes), G-d shows us that
He *is* around. When G-d openly punishes the sinner, the world is made to
see that there are consequences for deeds, both good and bad. G-d shows that
He cares and that He is involved in the affairs of man. And He not only
cares; He demands. He demands that we realize our potential and turn the
world into the reflection of G-d it ought to be.
Thus, if we drive G-d's Presence away even in private, G-d brings it back
unequivocally and publicly -- using the sinner as His hapless instrument for
teaching the world this critical lesson.
(The commentator Rashi does point out that G-d punishes in such a manner as
to make it evident what the sinner did privately and why he deserves
punishment. If not, there would be an equal Chillul Hashem in that G-d would
appear to be chastising an innocent man.)
One more point in our mishna requires explanation -- the fact that here,
more so than in other cases, G-d punishes the inadvertent sinner as the
willful one. Why should we be held accountable for that which we did by
accident? But exceeding the bounds of a single class, so we'll discuss this
G-d-willing next week.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.