Be a role model… Raising the bar… Setting a new standard… Be the change you want to see in the world… A light unto the nations…
What do these maxims have in common? They’re all about leading by example. But in Judaism when someone does that for the sake of God’s name, we call it a Kiddush Hashem.
You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am the Lord Who sanctifies you. (Vayikra 22:32)
The Commandment is so important that according to some Rabbinical authorities we are supposed to die for it. Die for it? Isn’t Judaism the religion that holds the sanctity of life above all else? We have pikuach nefesh, the principle that lets us break any other commandment to save a life. For example, if someone, God forbid, has a heart attack in front of you on Shabbos, you don’t hew and haw about the Halachic implications. You get the guy into your car and you drive him to the hospital. Or if some sadistic person comes up to you with a gun and says, “Eat this double-double bacon cheese burger or I’m going to shoot you!” It’s fine to eat the Burger King.
Yes, pikuach nefesh applies to all mitzvahs except the cardinal three (murder, sexual immorality, idolatry.) If the crazy guy with a gun from above now says “Rape this woman or I’m going to shoot you!” Say your prayers because you gotta take that bullet. In fact, to die in those situations is the strictest definition of Kiddish Hashem. By doing so, you are sending the ultimate message that those three are so wrong, we must stand against them at all costs.
More Comfortable Territory.
But let’s dial it back a bit. The definition of Kiddish Hashem most of us are more familiar with (and more comfortable with) is to publicly be the best Jew you can. Say someone drops their wallet and you come across it. Then you check the ID, find the address, and drop the wallet off personally. The person is blown away that you did this. And they see you wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis. Now that person views a Jew in a whole new way. You’ve just sanctified the very idea of God in the world.
That’s really great. And we know we all should be doing things like that. But most of us probably don’t. I mean, who has time to drive some schmuck’s wallet across town? But I once heard the amazing lesson by the incredibly gifted Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller.
You’re sitting on a crowded bus and a old woman with bags of groceries in her arms can’t find a seat. You think, “Is someone else going to give up their seat? I’m really tired. No? Fine.” And you graciously give up your seat. The woman says thank you, you actually feel a little better about yourself for having done a kindness. But that’s not the end of what you’ve done.
You’ve affected yourself. Stretched your compassion muscle and have made yourself more sensitive to the needs of others. You’ve affected the woman. You provided the thing she needed, possibly was praying for. Her day will certainly be better for it. But you’ve also affected everyone who saw you do it. You just made giving up your seat a normal thing. You’ve actually affected people’s perception of the social norm.
Had you not given up your seat and no one else had either, it would have codified insensitivity as the norm. And that power to affect the world’s outlook is that we’re talking about with Kiddish Hashem. Because being a Kiddish Hashem brings God into the world.
The Kabbalistic dimension.
It brings God into the world? What? I thought God was everywhere. Everything. Echad! One and only! Yes all that is true, He is always present with you. But you don’t feel His presence all the time. Why is that? Well that is a big question that I could do 5 blog posts on (at least), but I’ll try to explain it as briefly as possible (it’s going to be a little esoteric.)
God’s full presence would disintegrate us. Just God’s voice alone has been known to kill as seen in the 1999 movie Dogma and notably at Mt. Sinai as well. So by necessity, His presence is buffered. But how buffered or free flowing that presence is, is up to us. The more mitzvahs we do, the more flow of God we get.
Someone Else’s Miracle
So to do a Kiddish Hashem is to affect the people on the bus. To make doing good in God’s name a social norm. We often pray to God for miracles. But how often are we someone else’s miracle? Someone desperately needs to change lanes. Let them pass. Don’t want to give that homeless person a dollar because he might use it for drugs? Buy him a sandwich. See that person on the highway with a flat tire? They probably have AAA. Or someone’s probably coming to help them. But what if their phone died? What if they don’t know how to change their tire? What if they are supposed to be at a job interview and they’re completely stuck? Then they pray to God, even though they feel like their prayers have never been answered once in their whole life. Then you pull up.
Many people say, if God existed why would He let X happen? The answer is, God put you here. Why are you letting X happen?
Be someone’s miracle. Bring God into the world. Be a Kiddish Hashem.