On any given day, in the news are reports of someone being indicted for some kind of white-collar crime. I wait for the name of the alleged perpetrator. Not Jewish? I breathe a sigh of relief. Whenever Jews, and especially religious Jews, make the news for dishonest, criminal or other bad behavior, I cringe and feel sullied in the core of my Jewish collective soul.

Maybe it stems from the Torah portion, Emor, where G‑d charges the Jewish people with the task of sanctifying His Name here on earth. One way of doing that is to act in a way that causes people to revere G‑d. This is referred to as a Kiddush Hashem (“sanctification of G‑d’s name”). By standing for and becoming living embodiments of holiness, we become G‑d’s emissaries, as it were.

Sadly, however, the reverse is also true, and when we act in unsavory and hypocritical way, so as to garner contempt, it is called a chillul Hashem (“desecration of G‑d’s name”).

Standing Up for G‑d. Really?

This sounds like a very tall order, “sanctifying G‑d’s Name.” Furthermore, we are told, “G‑d’s honor is at stake.” How is it even possible that we mere mortals can have any effect on an Infinite and perfect Being?

The Jewish people—and the world—had just witnessed the destruction of the most powerful civilization on Earth, along with the toppling (literally) of its many gods. The G‑d that redeemed the Jewish people brought the plagues, turned nature on its head, split the sea, etc. This had to be a new paradigm for our understanding of the Creator. How could a Deity such as this need anyone or anything to sanctify His Name? How could a Deity such as this have any “needs,” period?

Furthermore, this command comes at a time when the Jewish people were barely out of Egypt. Had I been there, I could imagine my reaction: “Seriously? Am I supposed to be Your emissary and make You look good? I’ve been a slave all my life. And as you know, G‑d, I have post-traumatic stress disorder, my self-esteem is in the pits, and my inner child is wounded to the core. No offense, G‑d, but Your expectations of me are completely unrealistic.”

What Lights You Up?

One answer lies in the first sentence of the Torah portion, Emor, which means, “speak.” G‑d tells Moses to speak to the Kohanim (the priests), about instructing their children. Rashi (the medieval commentator) explains that encoded in this is a “warning” to educate their children. The Hebrew word “to warn” is l’hazeer, and it is related to the word, Zohar, which means “light.”

Predating by thousands of years a contemporary idea one would find in any spiritual parenting book, the Torah wants us to understand that the purpose of educating our children is to “light them up from within.” It is no coincidence that we use the term “to enlighten” to impart knowledge. True enlightenment is not about acquiring knowledge, however, but about gaining wisdom. Being enlightened is not an external process; rather, it’s the revealing of our inner essence and wisdom, our Divine truth.

And so Moses was “warning” the priests that the process of educating children is not just the external downloading of information, but the internal cultivation of their character to reveal their inner greatness because the essence of parenting is to build a child, and in so doing, to fill the child with light. And we do so not so much through what we teach, but through how we act. The oft-repeated phrase, “Do what I say, not what I do,” simply does not work with children. They will emulate. And if we are living in a way that is a chillul Hashem, we cannot expect them to then live in a way that is a Kiddush Hashem. We must not just “talk the talk.” We are commanded to “walk the walk.”

Similarly, the essence of the Jewish people is to build this world. All Jews, not just the Kohanim, are charged with being the priests of this world and being a light unto the nations. And that responsibility lies in how we think, speak and actfor our mind, body and soul all are part of the process of “sanctifying His name.”

Stepping Into Greatness

But where does it start? It is the responsibility of each person to build him or herself. When we understand who we are at our core and when our external behavior is congruent with this inner reality, then we could never act in any way except to sanctify G‑d’s name. Therefore, embodying holiness, so as to honor G‑d’s name, would be effortless and natural. That’s not child’s play.

We are all children of G‑d; however, to relate to G‑d as a dependent child who can only “take” is much too narrow, and it invites us to “play small.” In Emor, however, G‑d is redefining the relationship. G‑d is inviting us to step onto the bigger playing field, where we become G‑d’s very partner in Creation. Otherwise, we lack the capacity either to sanctify or desecrate holiness. Even before we were freed, this education was being given to us. When Moses was being tasked with going to Egypt and contending with the Pharaoh to free the Jewish people, he argued that he was really not the ideal candidate to be G‑d’s representative. “Oh my G‑d, I am not a man of words. ... I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” To which G‑d responded: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I G‑d? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you should say” (Exodus 4: 11-12).

Bottom line: If we find ourselves in a certain situation, there is a reason. We would not be there if we weren’t intended to do what needs to be done. So we must act, knowing that we have more strength than we think, more ability and more power than we know. We do not always chose our situations, but we do choose how we are going to approach and handle them. In giving us the Torah in the desert, G‑d was freeing us not just from the reality of slavery, but also from the mentality of slavery.

May we all embrace our Divine charge to be builders and enlighteners, and to live in the paradigm where everything and everyone are illuminated.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all “talk the talk” in areas where we are not necessarily “walking the walk.” Think about a few examples of where you may do this and jot them down. Then write down some practical ways that you can start authentically living what you already believe to be positive and true.
  2. Think about a situation you encountered where you were sure you were not the “right” person for the job, but you somehow were the “only” person, so you did what needed to be done. What did that teach you? What did you learn about yourself and your abilities?
  3. What does your enlightened self look like? How is that person different from how you are right now? List five ways you can start becoming more like the enlightened version of yourself.