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The Honor of Hashem and the Jewish People

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May 6, 2011

Jewish history has, unfortunately, always known the reality of religious persecution and, as a result, it was necessary for Jewish law to offer guidance to those confronted with the tragic choice between observance and death.

While we are generally taught to “choose life,” the pasuk, “I should be sanctified among the Jewish people” (Vayikra 22:32) is understood by the Talmud to indicate that there are exceptional circumstances – the three cardinal sins of idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality – which demand the ultimate sacrifice. In other words, in these rare situations, the obligation of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name, requires a person to give up his or her life rather than transgress.

The Rambam, in his Book of Mitzvos (mitzvas aseh #9), codifies this ruling and in the course of his presentation makes a remarkable comment. When discussing the specific case of coerced idolatry the Rambam stresses that if someone acquiesces and – wrongly – bows down to an idol it might appear that the person’s actual beliefs were compromised; even though this is a mistaken impression and not reflective of the person’s true beliefs, the image of submission would be nevertheless created.

Many commentators have inferred from the Rambam’s words that in a situation where someone worships avodah zara under the threat of death there is, technically speaking, no transgression of idolatry. Belief in the divinity of the idol is essential to the prohibition and given that the person doesn’t actually believe in the idol and only bowed down to avoid being killed, there is no violation. What emerges, therefore, is that the halacha demands that a person be martyred rather than creating the mistaken impression that a Jew can be coerced into surrendering his or her faith.

Upon reflection, however, this is very difficult to understand. If there is no violation of avodah zara – the person doesn’t believe in the idol – then what is so bad about bowing down? Why not just “pretend” to worship and avoid death? (See, as well, the comments of Tosfos, Sanhedrin 61b.)

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests that we can understand this ruling based on the continuation of the Rambam’s presentation where he contrasts the behavior of Chananya, Mishael, and Azarya with that of others in their generation. When Nevuchadnezzar demanded that everyone bow down to an idol only they refused – despite being thrown into a fiery furnace – while other people yielded. The Rambam then notes that the result of those whose who did bow down was that, “ve’haysah ba’zeh cherpah le’kol Yisroel,” great shame was brought on the Jewish people due to this massive neglect of the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem.

Based on these words R. Soloveitchik explained that an essential component of kiddush Hashem is that our actions are supposed to bring honor and pride to the Jewish people and, conversely, an aspect of chillul Hashem is when we dishonor and disgrace to our nation. An astounding insight thus emerges: Hashem’s honor is inextricably linked to that of the Jewish people. When our actions bring pride to Am Yisroel then Hashem is also honored – and a kiddush Hashem is created – but when we behave shamefully that reflects poorly on us – and Him – and thus creates a chillul Hashem.

Going back to our original question, R. Soloveitchik explained that the reason a person is required to give up his or her life rather than bow down to an idol is because even the appearance of worshipping avodah zarah is demeaning to the honor of the Jewish people and would create a grave chillul Hashem. Although technically there is no transgression of idolatry, nevertheless creating the impression that in a situation of danger one is willing to betray God itself brings shame on the person, the Jewish people, and ultimately on Hashem

The opposite, of course, is also true; any action that brings honor to the Jewish people creates a kiddush Hashem. It is especially appropriate, therefore, to consider this lesson just a few days before Yom Ha-Atzmaut. After all, one of the profound results of the establishment of the State of Israel was the great pride that it brought to Jews around the world. In fact, R. Soloveitchik (Kol Dodi Dofek) stressed that this enhanced pride was one of divine blessings – what he refers to as “knocks” from Hashem – accomplished by the state. Especially when one considers the events of the Holocaust and the feelings of vulnerability and helplessness that Jews felt, the founding of the State of Israel was critical to restoring the honor and enhancing the pride of the Jewish people and was, therefore, truly a kiddush Hashem.

As we thank God and celebrate 63 years of the State of Israel we should to do whatever possible – whether we live in Israel or anywhere else – to enhance the glory of the Jewish people and by so doing enhance the glory of Hashem.



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