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. Whenever a person
sins, whether publicly or privately, it makes the world less suited for
spirituality and drives away the Divine Presence. There was, however, a
basic distinction here. If I sin out of weakness -- I know G-d is there
watching but I can't control myself -- it is not so fundamental a denial of
G-d. I knew all along He was there; I just couldn't resist the temptation.
(Of course, even there it can rightly be argued that you didn't
really believe G-d was there...) If, however, I sin out of apathy --
because I don't believe or allow myself to consider 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 for intentional and unintentional acts of Chillul
Hashem. And this requires explanation. It is true in general that one who
sins inadvertently is not entirely blameless. If we never learned a certain
law (when we really should have been up on our studies), we bear some
responsibility. (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 consideration 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 even
more harshly. Say a 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)?
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; they would ultimately
have to rot and decay.
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
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 such 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
quietly and unobtrusively in a reservation in Colorado. It was to be a light
unto the nations. Our sobering yet inspiring task is to stand out and to
stand out proudly, and to show the world the potential for goodness and
achievement inherent in every Jew -- and in all of mankind.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.