Representatives of G-d
Chapter 4, Mishna 5(b)
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
desecration of the Name."
Last week we discussed the concept of desecrating G-d's name, Chillul
Hashem. As we explained, this term refers to driving G-d's Presence from
this world, of making G-d less perceptible to mankind. When a person sins,
whether publicly or privately, it makes the world less suited for
spirituality and drives away the Divine Presence.
But as we observed, there are sins and there are sins. If I sin out of
weakness -- I know G-d is watching but I cannot control myself -- it is not
so fundamental a denial of G-d. I knew all along He was there; I just
couldn't hold myself back. (Of course, even there it can well be argued that
you must not have *really* believed G-d was there...) If, however, I sin out
of apathy -- because I don't believe or allow myself to believe that G-d is
watching or really cares, I am denying G-d in the most fundamental manner.
And such a person, states our mishna, will be "paid back in public." Such a
refusal to see an omnipresent G-d can never be countenanced.
We concluded last week's discussion with a question. Our mishna concludes
that G-d punishes
both intentional and unintentional acts of Chillul Hashem. And this requires
explanation. Now it is true, generally speaking, that one who sins
inadvertently is not entirely blameless. If I never learned a certain law
(when I really should have been up on my studies), I bear some
responsibility for my ignorance. And likewise if, say, I eat some food
without checking carefully enough that it is kosher. (See Leviticus 4-5
regarding atonement sacrifices which must be offered in certain such cases.)
A person's lack of knowledge may at times be viewed as a lack of serious
concern for what the Torah requires of him. (This of course depends on the
situation, and is not a discussion for now.)
Regarding Chillul Hashem, however, the inadvertent sinner is judged more
harshly. Say a visibly religious Jew unwittingly cuts in front of someone in
line, splashes mud on the next fellow's good slacks, or cruises by
frustrated commuters in his single-occupancy vehicle not realizing he's in
an HOV lane. These things happen to all of us one time or the other. The
intentions of the perpetrator were perfectly innocent. Yet he has caused
others annoyance and has portrayed Jews as being less than courteous or
considerate. It is not his fault, but regardless, he has smeared the image
of the Jew in the eyes others. Does such a schlemiel (Amazing! My
spell-checker let that through!) deserve punishment?
The answer is firstly that the inadvertent sinner will certainly not be held
*as* accountable as the wanton one. Maimonides and Rabbeinu Yonah both
comment that R. Yochanan did not mean to say both the careless and wanton
sinner deserve the same *degree* of punishment. Yet neither will he be held
blameless. What is the explanation?
Many Jewish thinkers observe that there are two aspects to an evil act (as
well as a good one). The first is that the sinner has defied G-d's will. The
second is that he has introduced sin -- and so a force of evil -- into the
world. When Adam sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, death was
decreed upon all generations -- to be the inescapable fate of humankind
until the Resurrection of the Dead. But doesn't the Torah state: "Fathers
shall not be put to death on account of children, neither shall children be
put to death on account of fathers; a man for his own sin will be put to
death" (Deut. 24:16)? How can Adam's descendants be punished for his sin, no
matter how severe?
The answer is that the world was irreparably damaged by Adam's act. Death
came about not as punishment for Adam's defiance per se, but as the
unavoidable aftereffect of his sin. The perfection of G-d's creation became
tainted. When man ate of the Tree, knowledge of evil became a part of man's
psyche and a part of G-d's creation. Good and evil became confused and
intermingled. And man would no longer be able to exist perpetually in this
world. He now contained within him the seeds of evil and destruction. They
would ultimately have to rot and decay for man to exist in eternal state
(based on Rabbeinu Nissim and R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto).
And the same tragically holds true regarding Chillul Hashem. When one who is
visibly Jewish inadvertently creates a negative perception of Jews, he has
damaged the world and distanced it from recognition of G-d. And he cannot be
held unaccountable. The damage must be repaired. Perhaps if he is fortunate,
G-d will grant him the opportunity to compensate: He will be given the
chance to increase others' awareness of G-d's Presence by performing a
sanctification of G-d's Name. But regardless, the world will have to be set
straight and brought back on course.
Thus, the more visibly Jewish we are and the greater extent to which we
represent Jews, traditional Jews or learned Jews to the world, the higher
are the stakes. We will be judged by high -- perhaps impossibly high --
standards of conduct. Much more than we care to know or admit, our actions
will be viewed through the prism of -- "So *this* is what Jews are like...."
If, on the other hand, we hide our Jewishness and attempt to fade into
anonymity, our faults will not carry the same weight. (Although for the big
stuff, it usually catches up to us that we're Jewish.) They will matter
little in the immense, uncaring world in which we live. But neither will our
good deeds. And this is not the mission G-d has in mind for us -- to lose
ourselves in the crowd, to be out of the world's sight and mind, to live out
our days in a quiet little reservation in Colorado. It was to be a light
unto the nations, to live in the center of the world, with all eyes trained
on us. Our sobering yet inspiring task is to stand out and stand out
proudly, and to show the world the potential for goodness and achievement
inherent in every Jew -- and all mankind.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.