Together with all the Torah’s great wisdom, and its system of laws for everyday life, there are only a precious few verses in the Torah that address the ultimate reality and purpose of human life and our connection to the wider universe.
These are concentrated nuggets of Truth which, if you could just focus on any one of them, it could re-orient your life and go a long way towards fixing the entire world and bringing some universal improvement towards Redemption, Truth, and Peace.
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, has such a teaching.
Background: I remember the great sense of moral certainty we had during the second intifada in Jerusalem. Bombs were going off seemingly every day at our bus stops and cafes and grocery stores. The bad guys were saying “Allahu Ahkbar – God is Great” and committing murder in God’s name. We, the good guys, were healing the injured, praying and working for peace in God’s Name. But how? Some of us were doing the holy work of protecting the innocent and trying to save lives by destroying the bad guys by-any-means-necessary before they could perpetrate their next evil. Others of us were building connections with ‘them’ and trying to create a shared civil, societal, and physical infrastructure so that the overwhelming advantages of peace (for the overwhelming majority of non-combatant people who simply want to live a quiet peaceful life) would eliminate the impetus for war – also holy work.
The bad guys were surely “desecrating God’s name”. We the good guys were surly “Sanctifying God’s Name.”
I don’t wish upon anyone to live through such “morally certain” times.
In our less certain everyday these days, we read this week’s parasha as the source for the idea that our great task in life as Jews is to “sanctify God’s Name.”
To sanctify God’s Name is to behave in such a way that others see us and say in essence, “Aha! So that’s what Jews do – how wonderful! So that’s what the Torah says to do, that’s what God wants in this world – Praise God!” You might say this is the original version of Gandhi’s proscription to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
But our Torah portion here does not only use the positive exhortation to “sanctify my Name.” It also uses the negative (Lev. 22:32): “Do not desecrate my Name”:
וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י
You shall not desecrate My holy name…
Here we learn that not only must we avoid doing anything – whether in business or in our private or public life – for which others in this world say in essence: “Bah! So that’s how Jews behave – how shameful! So that’s what the Torah says to do, that’s what God wants in this world?! – Curse the Jewish God!”…we must instead actively do the opposite:
We must make an effort to catalyze the praises and blessings that indicate an increased level of sanctity brought into the world by our presence – and through us by extension, God’s Presence – in the world.
We can’t be passive. If either desecrating God’s Name in the world or sanctifying God’s Name in the world are opposite sides of the same coin, it is a very thin coin indeed. Choose we must.