by Rabbi Matt Cutler,
Congregation Gates of Heaven
, Schenectady NY
I was listening to some kids practicing reading Hebrew. One child made a very interesting mistake. Instead of reading HALLEL, he read the word CHALLEL. He inadvertently made the Hebrew letter HAY a CHET. Simple mistake right? But it made me think – the word HALLEL means praise as in Halleluiah. The root CHALLEL means to profane. That is a significant difference and hardly a simple mistake. That simple letter confusion between a HAY and a CHET made the words have very different meaning.
As a result, this mistake made me think – it was grounds for a solid metaphor for our learning. There is a distinct line between being good and doing evil. Sometimes such a distinction is quite clear, like embracing life through the
[saving a soul]. Sometimes it is a subtle simple break in a letter which is still both tangible and visible. Knowing the difference between the two can make us a holy people.
In our sedra, such a distinction is mapped out for us in one Torah verse. In Leviticus 21:6, we read: “they shall be holy unto their God and they shall not profane the name of their God.” One sentence, polar opposites are marked. The status of what we strive to be – holy. And the act of what we don’t want to be: profaning God. To put it in Hebrew terms, it is
literally means “sanctification of the Divine name” while
is the reverse: desecration. The former is a level very difficult for the ordinary human being to attain. Indeed, Jewish tradition is most frequently applied to those martyrs of our people who lay down their life for sacred Jewish ideals. It is one of those spiritual altitudes that very few of us want to be accorded. But the converse side of the concept,
, is very easy for any of us to do. Perhaps that is why the prohibition of profaning God’s name is linked to a virtue which we all of us should aspire.
Just what is this
? Tersely defined, it is an act committed by an individual done in full glare of public attention which brings disgrace to the other Jews and Judaism. It is what my grandmother would mumble in Yiddish when she read in the newspaper of a Jew being arrested:
a shanda fur die goy
. In Pirke Avot [4:5] it is written this way:
“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.”
In our Torah portion, the notion of
is defined as a status that a person carries which can be easily transmitted to others in the community. For example, it can be acquired by inappropriately touching a dead body. In Torah it is the status of one who leads another astray through idolatry or sexual immorality. In our day-and-age, it can be transmitted by witnessing an inappropriate act by another who is held in high regard and assuming such an act was permissible. Maimonides [
, Lo Ta’aseh 63] clarifies this by stating:
“There are some other things included in
[besides those involving overtly breaking mitzvot]. This is when a
person who is learned in Torah and famous for his piety performs
actions that cause others to denigrate him; despite the fact that they
are not technically
, this is c
. For example,
if a person buys an item and does not pay immediately despite the
fact that he has money on him, and the seller demands it from him
and he takes the item on credit. Or, if he is excessively merry, or eats
or drinks excessively among simpletons. Or, if he does not speak
gently to others, and does not receive them kindly, but is often angry
and argumentative. All of these sort of things are
A wise man must be scrupulous in his behavior and go beyond
the letter of the law, according to his greatness.”
Plus the Talmudic phrasing for this says it all: Marit ayin – it just looks bad.
The notion of
is mapped out in our Torah portion. Our rabbis have defined it as public inappropriate conduct that creates a
in our community because we are supposed to strive for holiness. Such actions lower us from that status as ones who are created
¸ in the image of God. There is a fine but distinct line between HALLEL [praising God] and CHILLUL [profaning the name of God] through our actions or our inactions. That simple switch of letters and forgetting to see the gap between the sacred and the profane that the letter HAY embodies speaks volumes for us.
What then should we do and how do we know how we should act? Listen to the words of Torah [Deuteronomy 4:5-7]:
“See, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord, my God,
has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which
you come, to possess it. Observe therefore and preserve them; for this
is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the peoples,
who shall hear all these decrees and say, ‘Surely a wise and
understanding people is this great nation! For which is a great nation
that has God who is close to it, as is the Lord, our God,
whenever we call to God?”
We who strive to be a holy people; We who pride ourselves as ones created in the image of God – we must remember that not only is it a mitzvah to bring honor to the name of God, it is a
, a real embarrassment, to draw ourselves into a negative light. We not only discredit our integrity, but our community’s as well as the name of God which is liked to our own.
Be honest… Act as we are commanded to act… Be holy and do not profane the name of God!