Private Matters

It comes as something of a revelation to many to confront the Rambam’s treatment of kiddush Hashem, or “sanctification of Hashem’s name” for the first time. One definition of the concept in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 5:10 — perhaps its most essential one, has nothing to do with readiness to give up one’s life or to act in a way that presents a good image of a Jew to others.

To be sure, that the Torah commands us to be willing to perish rather than violate certain commandments (or any commandment — even custom — in certain circumstances) is well-known to most Jews with a modicum of Jewish knowledge.  And the understanding that living an upstanding life, exemplifying honesty and sterling demeanor, is also a form of kiddush Hashem is likewise widely recognized.  The Gemara in Yoma (86a) famously describes various Amora’im’s examples of such projection of Jewish personal values, labeling them kiddushei Hashem.

What is surprising is the Rambam’s statement that kiddush Hashem is something that can be accomplished entirely in private as well.  In fact, particularly in private.

“Anyone who violates, willingly, without any coercion, any of the precepts of the Torah…” reads the Rambam’s psak, “has profaned the name of Hashem…”

“And likewise,” the halachah continues, “anyone who refrains from a sin, or performs a mitzvah, not because of any this-worldly concern, nor threat, nor fear, nor the seeking of honor, but only because of the Creator, praised be He, has sanctified the name [of Hashem].”

It would seem that the core of kiddush Hashem isn’t an act’s effect on others, which it needn’t have, but rather the fact that it has been freely chosen, out of pure, selfless devotion to the Creator.  Dying al kiddush Hashem, in other words, is but a manifestation of such selflessness. But it is selfless devotion to the Divine that itself truly defines kiddush Hashem.

Elsewhere (Peirush Mishnayos, last commentary in Makkos), the Rambam writes that such performance of any mitzvah, or refraining from any sin, out of pure selflessness and desire to do Hashem’s will is the key to Olam Haba. “It is of the fundamental beliefs in the Torah that when a person fulfills a mitzvah… fittingly and properly, and does not join with that performance any ulterior motivation… but for its own sake, with love… he has merited eternal life [Olam Haba].”

The Rambam there presents that idea to be what Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya meant in his famous Mishnaic dictum about Hashem’s gifting us with many mitzvos as a means of affording us merits.

It’s not easy, of course, to do something purely out of altruistic, Hashem-focused motives. We do myriad mitzvos daily, but their very daily-ness allows them to easily be muddled by habit. There are tefillos recited with but scant thought about their meaning, brachos recited as mumbled formulae, tefillin that we sometimes notice suddenly on our arms and heads, with meager memory of having consciously donned them.  Even “Lisheim Yichuds” — intended to focus our attention on what we’re doing — are themselves relegated to rote.

We are, moreover, constantly subject to the pressure of our peers — the knowledge that it just won’t do to eat at that restaurant with the less-than-ideal hechsher, or to miss a tefillah b’tzibbur or regular shiur.  And even in the relative privacy of our homes, well, we want our spouses and children to think well of us, no?

But when those moments of potential pure choices appear, when decisions to act, or to not act, are unaffected by rote and impervious to considerations of honor or other’s expectations, they are gold mines of potential kiddush Hashem.

That our contemporary world offers us such moments was the message of Harav Avrohom Schorr, shlita, in his Motzoei Shabbos message at this past year’s Agudath Israel national convention. He noted an irony: modern technology presents us with challenges that are, by very virtue of their ease and privacy, free from influences like fear or honor.  The only motivation we have to stand up to and overcome such challenges is yiras Shamayim, our freely chosen and sincere choice to accept Hashem’s will.

Rabbi Schorr asked the large gathering to consider why Hashem has given us such challenges, which did not confront any Jewish generation until our own.  The answer, he said, is clear: “Because He wants to bring about the time of nisgadalti viniskadhashti”; He wants to offer us the opportunity to accomplish kiddush shem Shamayim.

It’s in our hands in a way it has never been in any other ones, ever.