There was a time when Jewish people’s faith in the one G-d of Israel was challenged on a regular basis. During the Crusades, many thousands of Jews were forced to choose between “the cross and the sword.” Would they be prepared to deny their Judaism and embrace the dominant faith, or would they rather die than desecrate the name of G-d? Countless Jews gave their lives Al Kiddush Hashem, “in sanctification of the name of G-d.” They became martyrs for their faith and heroes for eternity.
Thankfully, today it doesn’t often happen that we must make that choice. Tragically, we still have far too many martyrs nowadays. Just in the last few weeks, there has been a worrying spate of terror attacks in Israel; in Hadera, Tel Aviv, and just the other day, in Elad. But these Jews were not asked to make a choice. They didn’t choose martyrdom; it was forced upon them.
The commandments to sanctify the name of G-d and never to desecrate it are found in this week’s Torah reading (Leviticus 22, 32). These days, generally, the concept of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the name of G-d, is observed not by dying as Jews but by living as Jews. How does a Jew give G-d a good name? When he or she behaves as a good Jew should. When other people see a Jew behaving honestly and uprightly, that gives Jews and Judaism a good reputation. And, ultimately, it all goes back to Torah—the word of G-d. G-d Himself gets the credit for the noble behavior of His people.
It doesn’t necessarily require major heroics or martyrdom. There are little things that make a discernible difference. Some classic scenarios would be returning money to a shopkeeper if you were given incorrect change in your favor or calling attention to the fact that a client overpaid you. Although it is only right to do these things, the fact is that others might have kept quiet about it. When a Jew acts with honor, he brings honor to his people, his faith and his G-d.
In April 2021, a rabbi in Beersheva, Israel, Rabbi Mendy Yitzchaki, stuck his hand deep into the couch in his living room in search of his daughter’s missing earring. Nestled in a crack was a stash of dollars and euros totaling approximately 100,000 shekels, roughly the equivalent of $25,000! It was a rented apartment, and their landlady left the old couch telling the couple that they could keep it or dump it. Her husband had been stashing the money away in the couch and never told anyone. He died three years ago. When the rabbi returned the money to the landlady, she was so moved that someone could be so kind and caring.
In November 2013, Rabbi Noah Muroff, a Connecticut rabbi returned $98,000 in cash he found in a plastic bag hidden behind the drawers of an ordinary office desk he bought on Craigslist in September. He had discovered the money while dismantling the $150 desk to move it through a narrow doorway. When he returned it to the lady who sold him the desk, she was speechless! Muroff said the former owner told him that she put her inheritance in the desk, and after a while, forgot it was there.
“I do not think there are too many people in this world that would have done what you did by calling me,” the non-Jewish lady wrote in a thank-you note. The story was all over the media, including on CNN.
Sadly, it also works in the reverse. Jewish slumlords do not give Jews, or the G-d of Israel, a good name. “Look at those greedy Shylocks!” is not something we want to hear, especially when there may be some grounds for the accusation.
Albert Einstein is reputed to have once stated: “If my theories prove correct, the Germans will claim me as a German, the French will say I am theirs, and the Americans will call me their own. If my theories are incorrect, they will all say I am a Jew.”
I once protested to the general manager of a well-known radio station in our community because I felt he was giving far too much exposure to Jews and Judaism in relation to our numbers and, unfortunately, the publicity wasn’t always flattering. At first, he denied it. But when I presented him with statistical proof, his plain and honest answer was: “Jews are news.”
Fair or not, the fact of life is that Jews are scrutinized far more carefully than others. Like it or not, every Jew is representing his faith, his people and his G-d. Ultimately, how we act will bring fame or infamy upon all of us. Please G-d, we will all be successful ambassadors.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.