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Parashat Emor 5774 — 04/30/2014

Parashat Emor 5774 — 04/30/2014

Do not desecrate My Holy Name, and I shall be sanctified among B’nei Yisrael. (Vayikra 22:32)

He would encourage his talmidim to sanctify Hashem’s Name in public, and would explain as follows the opening of the Kedushah, Let us sanctify Your Name in the world, just as they sanctify it in heaven above. He would ask, “Is it not presumptuous for us to think that we can be like the angels above? Don’t these words reflect haughtiness? What, a pauper dressed in clothing made mainly of patches will offer to serve the king just like one of the highest dignitaries in the kingdom?!”

   In truth, however, we are also “yachsanim” – important people – and we are entitled to be close to the King, just like the angels, by virtue of the soul that Hakadosh Baruch Hu breathed into our nostrils. In a manner of speaking, our soul is a part of Him, as it is written [concerning the creation of Adam Harishon], Vayipach b”apav nishmas chaim – “He blew into his nostrils a soul of life.” The Sages of the Zohar comment, “One who blows [into something], blows in from himself.” Man’s soul, as the Kabbalists say, is from the Olam Habriyah (“World of Creation”), and the creation of man is for the purpose of acknowledging Hashem and praising His greatness, as it is written, I created this nation for Myself [so that] they shall declare My praises (Yeshayahu 43:21). The difference is that the place for the angels to praise and sanctify His Name is above in Heaven while man’s place for doing so is down here on earth. While clothed in a physical body, man must sanctify the Name of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, as it is written, I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel (Vayikra 22:32). Since our purpose is to sanctify His Name  we are permitted to say, “Let us sanctify Your Name in this world, just as they sanctify it in heaven above.”  (Chafetz Chaim)

The Chafetz Chaim here is actually discussing the most fundamental question that each of us must answer in our lives: Who am I and why am I here.  What is unique about human beings?  What special talent(s) do we possess?  How should we use those qualities in the unfoldment of Gd’s plan for His creation?

The Chafetz Chaim, in the quote above, approaches the question from the perspective of “sanctifying Gd’s Name” (and it’s opposite, not desecrating Gd’s Name).  What does it mean to “sanctify Gd’s Name.”  On one level, it means that those of us who are associated with our religion should always conduct ourselves in a way that brings credit to ourselves, to the Jewish people, and to Judaism.  The Talmud gives examples:  R. Shiimon ben Shetach bought a donkey from an Arab.  There was a precious pearl attached to the donkey (presumably in a way that wasn’t obvious to the Arab).  The R. Shimon returned it, saying, “I paid for a donkey, not a pearl.”  The Arab replied, “Blessed be the Gd of Rabbi Shimon.”  R. Shimon ben Shetach’s integrity was attributed by a non-Jew to his conformity to Gd’s Will.  Whether the Arab would have had the same response had he been on the losing end of the deal, we don’t know.

So one very important level of sanctifying Gd’s Name is in the outward direction – in the realm of action.  When our actions raise people’s appreciation of Gd and Gd’s goodness, the general level of Gd-awareness in the world increases.

There is another level of sancifying Gd’s Name, which the Chafetz Chaim discusses in the quote.  That is sanctifying Gd’s Name for ourselves.  We do this when we pray with a minyan and recite the kedushah prayer.  This prayer is based on Isaiah’s vision of the angels in heaven who recite the verse Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, etc.  Since the word kadosh has as its root meaning the idea of separation, the angels, and we, acknowledge Gd’s sanctity and His status as separate from and transcendental to, the creation.  This repetition (three times daily – in the Shacharit Amidah, in the closing section of Shacharit, and in the Minchah Amidah) serves to increase our inner awareness of Gd.  Perhaps we can say that it represents a sanctification of Gd’s name in thought, rather than in action.

Now the Chafetz Chaim raises the question, how can human beings be so presumptuous as to think that we can sanctify Gd’s Name the way the angels can, who are much closer to Gd and are unencumbered by material bodies which cloud the perception and draw us away from Gd?  The answer that he gives is that Gd “blew into [our] nostrils the breath of life,” and that, according to our esoteric tradition, that means that Gd endowed us with something of His nature.  Now one aspect of Gd’s Nature that is clearly reflected in humans is the ability of self-awareness.

When we speak of Self-awareness in the case of Gd, of course we can’t really understand what it might mean at that level, but we can try to extrapolate from our own experience.  We all know that in our development from infancy to adulthood we become more self-aware.  An infant is self-absorbed, perhaps, but not really aware of himself as a separate entity.  In the “terrible two’s” the toddler knows he is separate from his parents, and is going to show them who’s boss!  As adults, we learn more and more who we are, and we learn to control how we present ourselves.  With further spiritual development, we eventually understand ourselves as souls, infinite and eternal, rather than as finite, mortal bodies.  We recognize that our Self is “a piece of the Divine.”  At this level of Self-awareness, our individuality is almost effaced, and we are almost left with our Divine Self being aware of itself.

With further development, even our senses begin to perceive the infinite value of everything outside ourselves.  The infinity inside sees its own reflection outside in the objective world.  This is an even higher level of Self-awareness – the Self recognizes itself in everything, inside and out.  I think this is probably as close as any human can get to understanding Gd’s experience of Self-awareness – pure, unbroken infinity.

The physicist John Archibald Wheeler once opined that human beings “are the universe’s way of knowing about itself.”  When we rise to the level of full Self-awareness, we function most perfectly in the way Gd designed us to function, and, as it were, delight the Creator by adding a new level of wholeness to the Creation.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 2: Heritage and Inheritance (25 September 1996)

What is the relationship between Israel and the Torah.  A verse in Deuteronomy tells us: Moshe commanded us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.  R. Steinsaltz laments the fact that the great majority of the Jewish people is basically being cheated out of this heritage trhough lack of education.  To a certain extent this is because the Orthodox world, which has held fast to Torah, has also not reached out in a meaningful way to those who are estranged from Torah.  (In the years since R. Steinsaltz wrote this quite a bit has changed, and there is in fact significant outreach.  There is also a burgeoning movement of returnees to Torah.)

On the other hand, those of us who may not be in the Orthodox camp need to step up and claim our heritage.  That does not mean gaining some superficial knowledge of Torah and then trying to mold it to fit our own preconceptions.  In fact, claiming the heritage of Torah is the work of a lifetime, both for those coming to it from birth, and those coming to it later in life.  It takes effort to learn to read Hebrew, and it takes time to learn the voluminous Rabbinic literature.  But the only way to do it is to take one step at a time and make some progress every day.  Otherwise, in the words of a wise man, we will have sold a diamond for the price of spinach!