In Parashat Emor we are commanded, “Do not desecrate My Holy Name, and I shall be sanctified within the Children of Israel.” These two mitzvot (commandments), desecrating God’s Name and sanctifying it, can be interpreted as very general principles that guide us to sanctify God’s Name in every action that we do and not to desecrate it. Nonetheless, the particular mitzvah of sanctifying God’s Name is specified regarding situations in which we are required to give up our lives in total self-sacrifice.
Jewish law holds that human life has supreme and fundamental value and the Almighty wants us to live in this world and not to die. This is why any life-threatening situation usually overrides all othermitzvot, as the verse states, “Observe My statutes and My laws that an individual does and he shall live by them” on which the sages expound, “but he should not die by them.” Yet, under certain circumstances we reveal that there is something beyond even the fundamental essence of life, as Rashi comments on the verse in Parashat Emor, “‘I shall be sanctified’―sacrifice yourself and sanctify My Name.”
There is a distinction made in Jewish law between those special mitzvot that one must sacrifice one’s life for and all other mitzvot. For example, if a Jewish individual is in a situation in which observing Shabbat will endanger his life, or when he must eat pork to survive and not die of hunger, the law is clear-cut: desecrate Shabbat! Eat pork! But don’t die. Nonetheless, there are three transgressions that one is required to sacrifice one’s life for and never transgress: idolatry (like Abraham who was thrown into the furnace for not agreeing to accept idolatry), prohibited relationships, and manslaughter.
More precisely, there are also times when it is required to sacrifice one’s life for any one of themitzvot. This is the case when that particular mitzvah has become representative of the entire Torah and Jewish faith. For example, if a non-Jew commands a Jew to desecrate Shabbat, not because he has any need for him to do so, but just to cause him to transgress so that he can ridicule him and his faith – then that Jew should sacrifice his life rather than desecrate Shabbat (this refers to a situation in which the non-Jew has told him to do so in public in front of ten other Jews, but if it is a time when there is a public decree against Jews, then this is the case even if the situation takes place in private). As mentioned, this law is true with regard to all mitzvot, even the most lenient rabbinical regulation. It has no bearing on the severity of the forbidden action itself but relates to the fact that it has now become the hallmark of sanctifying God’s Name. In contrast, with reference to the three transgressions of idolatry, prohibited relationships, and manslaughter, the requirement for self-sacrifice is because of the severity of the transgression and not because of any special significance that is related to it at the time.
Provoking Jewish nature
After this concise introduction to the halachic background, we will meditate on the special formulation of the mitzvah to sanctify God’s Name, “I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel.” Grammatically speaking, the Torah usually formulates commands in the active form, as in the command to “love your fellow as yourself,” “tie them as a sign on your hand,” etc. but “I shall be sanctified” is in the passive form, describing the result of our action: God tells us that He will be sanctified among us. In fact, one might think that sanctifying God’s Name is not a commandment at all, but that if we do not desecrate God’s Name it automatically results in His sanctification. Nonetheless, the halachah clearly determines that this is a positive commandment just like all those that are formulated in the active form.
The fact that this commandment in particular is written in the passive form is profoundly significant. Every other mitzvah in the Torah is performed consciously and intentionally and not instinctively. But, the mitzvah of sanctifying God’s Name has a much deeper dimension, in that it is completely natural. Although practically speaking an individual may “sacrifice his soul” in a fully conscious and intentional manner, and one might think that he needs to “force himself” to do it, the deepest truth is that the ability to die for God’s Name stems entirely from his innate Jewish essence.
The Alter Rebbe explains that the source of the Jewish affinity for self-sacrifice to sanctify God’s Name does not lie in the conscious powers of our psyche. This becomes particularly obvious when we observe the phenomenon of self-sacrifice among those Jewish souls who, although considerably distant from Torah study and mitzvah observance, when they are forced to deny God or His Torah, are nevertheless prepared to die to sanctify God’s Name. Such Jews do not actively identify with the Torah and Jewish faith in any way through the rational, conscious powers of their souls, and all their thoughts, emotions and actions appear to be completely detached from Judaism. Yet, at the deepest level of our souls, at a point beyond our comprehension, every Jew nurtures an inseparable bond with God. Even an individual who is a sworn heretic in everyday life, in the innermost point of his Jewish soul he is actually a great believer (although he is totally unaware of it). Yet, this hidden power of faith, his true Jewish nature, comes to the fore when approached by an impending outside force that threatens its very existence.
Now we can understand why this particular mitzvah is written in the Torah in the passive form, “I shall be sanctified,” because self-sacrifice to sanctify God’s Name, more than any other mitzvah, reflects our essential nature as Jews. Therefore, even a conscious, intentional act of self-sacrifice is considered automatic and instinctive. Just as I breathe and eat to allow my physical body to survive―so my Jewish soul acts naturally to ensure its spiritual survival at moments of self-sacrifice.
Incidentally, since we have mentioned Jewish nature, we will emphasize that, “I will be sanctified within the Children of Israel” refers to Jews in particular. Indeed, the halachah is that non-Jews are commanded to observe the seven Noachide laws but are not commanded to sanctify God’s Name. For instance, if a righteous non-Jew (who is deeply respected in Jewish law and deserves a portion in the World to Come) would be forced to serve idolatry under threat of his life and he would ask us how to behave, we would tell him to do so (albeit superficially) and not sacrifice his life. Only a Jew is required to forfeit his life, because only a Jewish soul has that special “component” that connects him instinctively to the Almighty above all rational reasoning.
The consummate wholeness of the Torah, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel
Let’s now return to the three special mitzvot that we are commanded to sacrifice our lives for: idolatry, prohibited relationships, and manslaughter. This is one of many Jewish “triplets” in the Torah – beginning with the three Patriarchs and including the Torah which is a “threefold Torah” (containing Torah, Prophets, and Scriptures) which is given to a threefold people (priests, Levites, and Israelites) and many, many more. If we consider our current triplet carefully, we may immediately notice its similarity to another famous triplet: the Jewish People, the Torah, and the Land of Israel, each of which is defined by its requirement for consummate completeness, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, often emphasized.
Completeness refers to an entity that only manifests as a whole and dividing it into pieces can never suffice because the revelation of its essential nature is complete only if it includes all its details and components. Here is a simple example: if I have a whole loaf of bread I can definitely cut a slice out of it and eat it without jeopardizing the definition of the bread. But nobody would ever voluntarily surrender a part of his body―not even his baby toe―because this would have a devastating effect on his entire body. So too, and even more so, regarding the completeness of the three concepts of Torah, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel (in fact, the three together manifest an all-inclusive completeness):
We cannot relate to the Torah as a collection of ideas that can be accepted in part. The entire Torah―all the letters of the Torah scroll and all the 613 mitzvot together―constitutes a consummate whole and the foundation of Judaism is total acceptance of Heaven’s yoke and all the mitzvot of the Torah as a whole. Just as a Torah scroll that is missing even one letter is invalid, so a proselyte who wishes to convert to Judaism and accepts the entire Torah “except one minor aspect” cannot be accepted as a righteous convert. There is no half-Torah.
Regarding the Jewish people: all Jews are fused together like the limbs of one complete body; every Jew and Jewess is unique and essential to the whole, wherever they may be, and we can never forfeit even one of them. The Giving of the Torah would not have been viable without the consummate wholeness of six-hundred-thousand Jewish souls (corresponding to the six-hundred-thousand letters of the Torah; each individual Jew with his own letter in the Torah) who stood at the foot of the mountain “as one man with one heart.”
Regarding the Land of Israel, there are those who mistakenly state that they love the Land of Israel and want the Jewish people to live here, but what do we need the entire land for? Someone who makes such a statement has not truly grasped the essence of the land of Israel, “a land whichHavayah, your God supervises, the eyes of Havayah, your God are constantly on it,” which was given to the Jewish people in its entirety and we are not authorized to give away even the smallest part of it to a non-Jew.
True, sometimes for various reasons we are unable to observe the entire Torah; we cannot always reach out to every Jew; and there have been long periods in history when we have been unable to occupy the whole of the land. But we must realize that in essence, the Torah is complete, the Jewish people is complete, and the land of Israel is a complete entity.
These three “completenesses” appear to be related to the concept of self-sacrifice mentioned above. So, for instance, we must sacrifice our souls for every Jew, because we cannot forfeit the completeness of the Jewish people for anything in the world. But when we consider these three in greater detail, we can identify a beautiful correspondence between them and the three most severe transgressions:
The completeness of the Torah clearly corresponds to the prohibition against idolatry: the Ten Commandments begin with the commandment, “I am Havayah, your God… You shall have no other gods besides Me”; the entire Torah and all the mitzvot are the finer details of this general rule, as the commentaries write that all 248 positive commandments are included in the phrase, “I am Havayah, your God,” and all 365 prohibitive commandments are included in the commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” Thus, if someone is being coerced to commit an act that can be interpreted to be idolatrous, he should sacrifice his life, because this is not merely one detail of the Torah, but the entire Torah.
The completeness of the Jewish people corresponds to the prohibition against manslaughter. This correspondence is also quite straightforward, because manslaughter eradicates another Jewish soul. One particularly potent expression of the consummate wholeness of the Jewish people is in the halachah that states that if a non-Jew imposes a demand on a group of Jewish individuals to surrender one of the group to put him to death or else they will kill the entire group, God forbid, then the law is that “They should kill all of them but never surrender one Jewish soul”! At face value, the simple reasoning would be that it is better that one Jewish individual die than the entire group, but the halachah teaches us that every Jew is “an entire world” and we cannot do any act that will jeopardize the wholeness of the Jewish people, even if it involves paying such a high fee. Care of the continued existence of the Jewish people is in the competent hands of the Almighty, who commanded us to conduct ourselves in this manner.
Finally, the completeness of the land apparently corresponds to prohibited relationships, but how? In the previous parashot (Acharei-mot and Kedoshim) we saw that the Torah explicitly associates observing the laws of prohibited relationships with the right to settle the land of Israel, as the Torah states after enumerating the prohibited relationships, “For all these abominations were committed by the people of the land who preceded you and the land was defiled. But the land shall not vomit you out by you defiling it as it vomited out the nation that preceded you.” We can understand this special bond with the land through the recurring Biblical image of the bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a husband-wife relationship, “As a young man marries a virgin, so your children will marry you.” At a deep level, transgressing the injunction against prohibited relationships means denying the possibility of a true, consummately whole relationship between man and wife with all its implications. Following this principle, the relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel must be understood as a relationship of consummate wholeness: the Jewish nation in its entirety living in the whole land of Israel. Just as the sanctity of married life can never allow two men to both have an autonomous relationship with one woman, so the land of Israel can never be divided by the formula of “two states for two people” – but it will always remain “one land for one people.” The entire Jewish nation must occupy the whole land of Israel following the laws of the Torah in its entirety.
This article is dedicated to the memory of our friend, the esteemed Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, zt”l, for who these three “wholenesses” were his guiding light