Hebrew scriptures: Not in God’s name

TORAH portion: Emor, Leviticus 21:1 - 24:24

I’ve noticed a common theme while watching the anti-Israel protests here in the US and across the world over the last two months. Almost without fail, every pro-Palestinian protest was filled with crowds, their faces twisted in anger, yelling and screaming the most genocidal and vitriolic refrains.

 Perhaps this is one of the many reasons that so many of them hide their faces.However, in contrast, the overwhelming majority of pro-Israel counter protesters were groups of people singing, or standing serenely and holding signs; violent rhetoric or chants of aggression were almost totally absent.

One should not be surprised. Islam has long been associated with violence, and savagery was usuallyimplemented as the vehicle of change. In fact, to this very day, many of the most abominable acts perpetrated are punctuated with the accompanying declaration of “Allahu Akbar!” Somehow, they find it appropriate to drag the name of the Almighty into their acts of atrocities. Christianity has also had its moments; from the crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, many horrors and evil acts were committed in the “name of God”.

 Small wonder that religion in general gets a bad rap and is often saddled with a reputation for creating division and worldwide disunity. Judaism has a very different view. In fact, according to the sages of the Talmud (Megillah 10b), when the angels desired to sing songs of praise and thanks to the Almighty when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, He scolded them and said, “My creations are drowning, and you want to sing songs?” In other words, even though the Egyptianswere cruel and had made the Jewish people suffer as tortured slaves, God took no pleasure in their demise.

We have to be so careful not to attach the name of God to our very human failings, even by mere association. This week’s Torah portion has two commandments directly related to this concept.“Be careful regarding My commandments and fulfill them; I am God. You shall not desecrate My holy name; rather I must be sanctified among the Israelites; I am the Lord Who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:31-32).

There are two mitzvot associated with these verses: 1) Do not desecrate God’s name and 2) Enhance thereputation of God and His Torah. Of the 613 commandments, 365 of them are negative (thou shalt not...) and 248 are positive commandments. Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish law, lists all of them in his Sefer HaMitzvot – Book of Commandments. Not desecrating God’s name is negative commandment number 63, and sanctifying the name of God and His Torah is positive commandment number 9.Maimonides elucidates these concepts further in his epic work Mishneh Torah.

 He writes (Hilchos Yesodei Torah 5:11), “When a pious Torah scholar does things which cause people to take a poor view of him and speak against him, even if the acts are not transgressions, he profanes God’s name. For example, when such a person doesn’t speak pleasantly to others, or does not greet them with a smile or in a pleasant manner, but instead acts in a quarrelsome manner and angers easily.   

“The greater the man, the more careful he must be with his behavior. Such a person should go beyond the letter of the law in his dealings with others. “If a Torah scholar will be careful about his behavior, will speak pleasantly to people, act friendly towards them, receive them with a pleasant facial expression, will refrain from retorting when he is insulted, will honor even those who treat him with disdain, will be honest in his business dealings, will constantly devote himself to Torah study, will always gobeyond the letter of the law, and will avoid extremes and exaggerations, then he will be praised and beloved and others will desire to emulate him. This man has sanctified God. About him it is written, ‘And He said to me, ‘You are my  servant, O Israel, in who I shall be glorified’’” (Isaiah 49:3). (This precedes Isaiah Chapter 53 and declares Israel to be the suffering servant.)

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