They shall be holy to their G-d and they shall not desecrate the Name of their G-d; for the fire offerings of Hashem, the food of their G-d, they offer, so they must remain holy. (Vayikra 21:6)
The sin of chillul Hashem — desecration of Hashem’s name — is a subjective violation in that it is dependent upon the perception of others. Whether an act is right or wrong is secondary to the way others may view one’s behavior. In fact, the status of an individual in the eyes of others is also a crucial element in the assessment of one’s deeds in regard to upholding the honor of our Creator. For example, one who is considered a talmid chacham may act strictly according to the laws of the Torah yet violate this commandment.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 83a) tells of two porters hired by a great Rabbi to transport barrels of wine. Unfortunately, they were negligent and the barrels broke, causing the Rabbi a large financial loss. He took possession of their coats as collateral until they would make restitution. They, surprisingly, took him to court to recoup their clothing.
The judge ruled that the coats be returned to the porters.
“Is that the law?” asked the Rabbi.
“Yes,” said the judge. “The verse says [Mishlei 2:20]: ‘That you walk in the ways of good men.’”
The Rabbi obediently returned the collateral. But to his dismay, the case was not closed.
“We are poor laborers,” the porters claimed, “and we worked a full day on his behalf and ended up with nothing!”
The judge said, “Pay them for their time.”
“Is that also the law?” the surprised Rabbi asked.
“‘And keep the paths of the righteous,’” he said, quoting the end of the verse.
In other words, the judge instructed the Rabbi to behave in a manner above and beyond his obligations under the law because he was a talmid chacham and was expected to live up to a higher standard.
In Vaydaber Moshe, Harav Moshe Halevi Pollak writes that the Kohanim have to maintain a higher standard for themselves because they “offer the food of their G-d.” The same is true of the talmid chacham; his status requires that he do things “over and above the requirements of the law.”
The sons of Eli HaKohen, Chofni and Pinchas, were reproved by their father, who said, “Don’t, my sons! For it is not good what I am hearing…” He was telling them that they may have been keeping to the letter of the law but people in their position must also be keenly sensitive to others’ perception of their behavior. True, their conduct could be judged favorably, but what Eli demanded was that they leave no room for error in the eyes of the people.
Once the son of the Chofetz Chaim did something about which a person would not have to be concerned. The Chofetz Chaim told him, “You must not behave this way! It is not befitting a talmid chacham.”
“But I am not a talmid chacham,” his son said.
“In the eyes of others you are, and therefore you must behave as one,” the Chofetz Chaim explained. “It’s not who you are that sets the standard of behavior by which you must live; it’s who people think you are!”
Today, we the Jewish people are subjects of highly critical scrutiny. We are held by our fellow Jews — and by the non-Jewish world as well — to a higher standard. The Torah declares that we are “a nation of Kohanim and a holy people.” The praise brings with it responsibility to behave not merely in keeping with what is right according to law, but to do what will leave no room for criticism. We must strive not only to be good but to be better than good.