The Torah portion of Emor is composed of two halves. The first deals mostly with laws pertaining to the priests (Kohanim), the second with the cycle of festivals. In summing up the first section and leading into the second, the Torah offers some stirring words:

“Keep my commands and follow them. I am the LORD. Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the LORD, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev. 22:31-33)

The ancient Rabbis understood the commandment to sanctify God’s name as addressing the most extreme circumstances: When one is forced to choose between publicly giving up one’s Judaism or being killed, a Jew is to choose the latter. This is a commandment of martyrdom. (This is distinct from the traditional rabbinic understanding that all mitzvot may be set aside to save a life, including one’s own, except for murder, idolatry, and sexual sins. The particular commandment of sanctifying God’s name has to do with the public nature of the circumstances; it is therefore only invoked when ten Jews are present, which constitutes a public.)

This is a potentially troubling commandment. In an age when the specter of religious violence and the language of martyrdom pose real threats to Jews in particular and humanity as a whole, how do we learn from this commandment?

In distinction from those who would martyr themselves by killing others, the Torah clearly makes no such provision. The Torah’s allowances for taking life are narrow and limited and inapplicable here.

More to our point, an essential Big Question of human experience is “What would you die for?” If we don’t know the answer to this question, then we don’t really know the answer to its inverse: “What are you living for?” What is most important to us? What is so important that we are willing to put ourselves in harm’s way on its behalf? Granted, most of us will hopefully never encounter the situation described by the Rabbis. But all of us encounter shades of it every day: We make decisions to spend time and money in this way and not that, and in so doing we write the story of our lives. What guides us in those decisions? What is ultimately most important?

What the Torah does here is to remind us that we must always view our stories from the standpoint of the story that will be told. When confronted with a choice, we ask ourselves, “What should the story be here?” We want our lives to be noble, we want our memories to be for a blessing. The work of making them so happens now, in every moment, while we are here on the planet.

Shabbat shalom.

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