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.