Oheb Shalom Congregation South Orange, NJ Parashat Emor
When I was a counselor at Camp Ramah, I would tell my campers that they should pay special attention to their behavior when we took trips outside of camp. If we went to a camp site, I said we should be sure to clean up even more diligently than if we were having a “bishul chutz” (cookout) in our own camp. We are known to be a Jewish camp, so when we visit public places it matters what other people think of us.
In Parashat Emor we find a verse that tells us why it is so important to make a good impression on other people, especially those who are not familiar with Judaism. “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I the Lord who sanctify you." (Leviticus 22:32). The Hebrew word for “profane” is chilul and the act of disrespecting God’s name is known as a Chilul Hashem. The opposite, a Kiddush Hashem, is an act of honoring God’s name. The Torah suggests we should refrain from speaking negatively about God or cursing God’s name.
But another way of understanding Chilul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem is that our public behavior can be a reflection not just on ourselves but on the entire Jewish people. That is the case in situations when our Jewish identity is known to others, such as when we wear a kippah in public or carry a backpack with the name of a Jewish day school or camp on it. In the Talmud (Masechet Yoma 86b), we read: “If someone studies Torah and performs ethical, righteous deeds, what do people say of him? Look where the Torah led him! Likewise, if someone studies Torah and performs evil, immoral deeds, what do people say of her? Look where the Torah led her!”
The literal meaning of the word chilul is to “fill a vacuum.” Our public behavior, positive or negative, fills the vacuum in the minds of those who do not know very much about what it means to be Jewish. Rather than think that no one has the right to critique our public behavior, we should remember that we have a responsibility to create a good impression about what it means to be Jewish wherever we go in the world.