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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community: 

The Torah’s perspective on just about every aspect of human life—communal, familial, and personal—is discussed in the Parshiyot of Kedoshim and, this week’s Torah reading, Emor. These two Parshiyot teach us about the proper relationship between rich and poor, lender and borrower, seller and buyer, husband and wife. We learn about the proper human relationship with plants and animals. We are instructed about how to appropriately worship and relate to God. The overarching theme of all of these directives is the commandment with which Kedoshim begins: 

קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה' אלוקיכם
"You shall be holy for holy am I, Hashem, your God."

This section of the Torah ends in the middle of Emor with:

ולא תחללו את שם קדשי ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל אני ה' מקדשכם
"You shall not desecrate My Holy Name, rather I should be sanctified among the children of Israel; I am Hashem Who sanctifies you.”

Rambam extracts two Mitzvot from this Pasuk: “All of Israel is commanded to sanctify His Great Name and are warned not to desecrate His Name.” Professor Nechama Leibowitz z”l askes the obvious question: Is it really within the ability of a mortal, finite human being to sanctify or desecrate the Name of God, the name of the source of all holiness? The holiness of even the greatest amongst us is a mere imitation of the Kedusha of God. How can we sanctify that which is already perfectly holy?

Human beings, of course, cannot in any way affect God’s objective holiness which is eternal and immutable. But even we puny humans can publicize His holiness. We can add to the subjective human awareness and appreciation of God. We can glorify the Name of God, but we can also desecrate His Name in the eyes and minds of others. How exactly do the servants crown their king? How do the finite glorify the infinite? The Gemara in Yoma (86a) supplies us with part of the answer:

The way to fulfill the commandment to love God is by making the Name of Heaven beloved to others. If a person learns Torah and serves Torah scholars and relates pleasantly to others, behaves pleasantly in the marketplace, conducts business affairs honestly and with integrity, what do others say about that person? How fortunate is the parent who taught this person Torah? How fortunate is the rabbi who taught this person Torah. Woe to those who have never studied Torah. Have you seen how pleasant are the manners, how proper are the actions of this person who studied Torah? But when one studies Torah but does not speak and act properly with others, does not conduct business with integrity, what do others say? Woe to this person who studied Torah. Woe to the parents who taught this person Torah. How fortunate is a person who never studied Torah. Have you seen this person who studied Torah? How ugly are his actions! How perverse is his way of life!

Rambam tells us that a person who represents Torah in the community and who is constantly embroiled in controversy, speaks coarsely, does not greet people pleasantly is desecrating God’s Name even with actions which are not in themselves sinful but which cause others to think badly of him/her. The more one is identified with Torah, wrote Rambam, the more careful one must be not only to act properly, but even to go beyond the letter of the law to act ethically and kindly even when not specifically required to do so. If a person who is known as a Torah scholar earns the respect and affection of others by virtue of impeccable behavior and pleasant demeanor and, as a result, encourages others to emulate this behavior, that person has sanctified the Name of God. It is about such a person that Hashem said,

עבדי אתה ישראל אשר בך אתפאר
"You are my servant, Israel, in whom I glory."

Any teacher who takes a class to a public event expects the children to behave well. It’s not fair to our kids but when we take our students out into the real world we expect nearly perfect behavior because we know that in the eyes of others they represent Judaism and Torah. We are committed, observant Jews who proudly identify as such in the community. We represent Orthodox Judaism in the eyes of other Jews and of the rest of society. Whether we like it or not, our actions, good and bad, have significant impact on the way others look upon a life of Torah and Mitzvot. We have it in our hands even in our simplest, most mundane behavior to sanctify or desecrate the Name of Hashem. What an awesome responsibility and opportunity!

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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