September 28, 2023
September 28, 2023

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The Nature of Chillul, and Kiddush, Hashem

This week, rather than reading the usual haftarah for the parsha, we read a special haftarah for Parshas Parah. This haftarah mentions, in several places, the Chillul Hashem, caused by the Jews in exile. Normally, when we speak of Chillul Hashem, people think of Jews acting in a way that is immoral, unethical, or rude. It may therefore be surprising that the mention in the haftarah does not refer to any of these things! Rather, it is the very fact that the Jews are in exile that causes a Chillul Hashem. Furthermore, the Kiddush Hashem, which will repair the situation, does not consist of anything that might be thought of as “friendly.” On the contrary, Hashem describes that He will sanctify His desecrated name via our return to our land. Such a return caused significant hostility from non-Jews at the beginning of the Second Temple, and again in the modern day. Thus, we may ask: How can the terms of Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem be used for such disparate, and even seemingly opposing, concepts?

In order to find the common theme here, we will first examine the literal meaning of these terms. Kiddush Hashem literally means sanctification of the name, and Chillul Hashem means desecration of the name. The key concept here is that of Hashem’s “name,” or, in somewhat less metaphorical terms, His reputation.

So what is the reputation that Hashem wishes to have? How does He want to be seen by His creations? Clearly, one aspect of His desired reputation is that people should be aware that He is benevolent and worthy of blessing. It is this aspect of His reputation that we are protecting by acting in a moral and ethical manner as He has commanded us.

But there is another aspect to His desired reputation, which is just as important. In the parsha, Moshe argued that Hashem should not destroy his people because of what the nations would think. However, he did not argue that the nations would believe Hashem to be malicious or malevolent. Rather, he argued that they would believe Him unable to bring the Jews into the land of Canaan. Hashem wishes to be seen not only as good, but also as powerful. This then explains the usage of these terms in the haftarah. The exile of the Jews from our land makes us (and, by extension, our God) appear powerless, constituting a Chillul Hashem. Conversely, our return, especially in the face of opposition, displays power and thereby brings the nations’ perspective of Hashem closer to the truth that He is powerful as well as good; as such, it represents a Kiddush Hashem.

This dual goal actually reflects two more fundamental parallelisms: We understand that there is a need for both ‘אהבת ה, love of Hashem, and ‘יראת ה, fear/awe of Hashem. An understanding that Hashem is good and benevolent leads us to the former, while an awareness of His power leads to the latter. Conversely, when someone intentionally sins, they do so for (broadly speaking) one of two reasons: Out of a desire for the prohibited behavior לתיאבון, or for the sake of defying Hashem’s authority, להכעיס. A failure to understand Hashem’s goodness can lead to defiance—להכעיס, whereas a failure to recognize His power may lead to ignoring His commands and transgressing— לתיאבון.

This duality may also be used to resolve the apparent “contradiction,” where the concept of Kiddush Hashem is sometimes aligned with acting in accordance with what non-Jews wish to see from us, and sometimes opposed. When we act in a moral and ethical manner, and even go beyond the strict demands of the Halacha to be kind to non-Jews, we display the benevolence of our people, and by extension of our God, constituting a Kiddush Hashem. Such behavior may not display power, but it does not impinge on it either, since no one is forcing us to behave in this manner. Conversely, if there is a power struggle between Jews and non-Jews, fighting and winning this struggle displays power and is therefore a Kiddush Hashem. Even if our enemies may be upset, this is not a Chillul Hashem, provided of course that our cause is a moral one, consistent with Hashem’s benevolence to all of His creations.

Yitzhak Kornbluth was born in Teaneck, and attended Yeshiva University before getting a Ph.D in mathematics and a job as a software engineer. He currently resides in Washington Heights.

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