Last week our parashat hashavua related a low moment for our people, in which our lack of trust in each other and lack of commitment to our values led to what is called in Jewish tradition hillul haShem, the desecration of the Name of G*d. This is a much-misunderstood term which has not lost its resonance today, unfortunately, in light of current events both nationally and closer to home.
Opposite the concept of hillul, desecration, is that of kiddush HaShem, sanctifying the Name. It may be simply understood as the defiance of hillul HaShem, as we learn in the Megillat Ester which we will soon read in observance of Purim. In the Persian palace, the struggle of our people to hold on to their Jewish identity and culture, writ small, is reflected in Mordecai advice to Ester to hide her Jewishness, at first. Yet when a threat arose to all Jews, to hide would have been a betrayal of her people, an act tantamount to hillul HaShem, desecrating the Name, because (1) it would be a public repudiation of her loyalty to the Jewish covenant and the G*d it celebrates, and (2) in this way it would be an undermining psychological blow to all those who were struggling to hold out against similar oppressive pressure, whether it was to give up Shabbat or Kashrut, or to let the majority culture erase our Jewish identity in smaller, less obvious ways that nevertheless take their toll over time. When it is desecration to hide, is is sanctification to come out for the sake of what we owe each other in a meaningful covenant community.
Hillul haShem, then, is not about insulting G*d directly; the damage is in the way it weakens the connections between us, which is, we are taught, the way we come to know the G*d who brought us out of Egypt. The Golden Calf (or bull, really) is only the symptom. The problem is that you and I aren’t supporting each other, and that as a result, we’ve lost our way.
The Tzanzer Rebbe used to tell this tale: a person lost in a deep dark forest searched desperately for a way out. Coming upon another person, the first sighed in relief, “ah, I’m saved! please show me the way out of this forest.” But the other replied, “Friend, I too am lost. Like you, I can only show you the ways I have tried that have failed. Let us join hands and search for the way together.”
The word hillul, desecration, recalls the word hallal, “emptiness.” It speaks of that which, rather than hallowing (kiddush) actually hollows out the meaning from what we do. Kiddush HaShem is the refusal to let our principles be devalued, whether because of convenience, peer pressure, or even fear. The sanctification of the Name can be a quiet act such as entering a prayer space quietly, or stopping until the Shema has been recited in full; or it can (G*d forbid) be an overt act of defiance. Such acts include the women who refused to give their gold earrings for the making of the calf in last week’s parashah, or refusing to go along because it’s uncomfortable to be outed as the only Jew in a room, or even the act of standing firm against persecution, refusing to deny oneself or one’s identity (only permissible when hiding is either impossible or publicly demoralizing, as in the example of Esther).
This week our parashah brings the promise that hillul can be repaired, although not erased. Some days don’t feel like it, but even as we are taught that every day brings opportunities to recognize and recite so many blessings in our lives, so also a closer and more thoughtful look might reveal small but significant daily opportunities for us to choose between adding to the holy in the world or detracting from it by small acts and words. May we all become more aware of the empty spaces in our lives, and how acts of connection have the power to sanctify the life we share.