By Rabbi Shraga Freedman
It wasn’t too long ago that the frum community in America was small, and its members’ actions would often go unnoticed. Today, though, we have been blessed with an explosion of growth, and this is no longer the case. Our communities have grown, our schools and organizations have expanded and proliferated, and our presence has become much more noticeable within society as a whole. One need only look at the huge crowds of frum Jews filling amusement parks and other places of recreation during Chol Hamoed, and at the flurry of letters about kiddush Hashem or chillul Hashem that often follow in the wake of a Yom Tov, in order to perceive the truth of this observation. The way we act – children and adults alike – no longer goes unnoticed by the society around us, and we must be constantly cognizant of that fact.
As an old saying goes, “no single rain drop believes it is to blame for the flood”. When there is a “flood” of chillul Hashem, it is often the cumulative effect of many people’s irresponsible actions. Each person’s act, on its own, may have gone completely unnoticed, but when combined with the similar acts of many others, it becomes part of a veritable deluge of undesirable behavior. When one person throws a candy wrapper out of his car window, parks or drives illegally, or commits some other minor infraction, he may be tempted to rationalize his misdeed on the grounds that it is merely a trifling offense. “What’s the big deal?” he may reason. “Who cares if I bend the rules just this once? What harm can it possibly do?”
The answer, though, is that his actions may indeed cause no harm on their own – but when they are coupled with the actions of countless other people doing the very same thing, the potential for chillul Hashem is enormous.
There is another danger that comes with our increase of numbers. We can develop an attitude that we are at home, this land is ours. We feel very comfortable and we can become less aware and less cautious of the sensitivities of the people around us.
If you ever visit the city of Prague, you may be shocked at the sight that will meet your eyes at the Charles Bridge, a 600-year-old bridge that traverses the Vltava River. There, you will find a Christian statue adorned with gold Hebrew letters that spell out the words of the pasuk “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Hashem Tzevakos.” Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells the tragic story behind this inscription: In 1696, a Jew passing by this statue chose to demonstrate his lack of respect for the statue. His actions were observed by gentiles, who nearly murdered him and launched a pogrom in retribution. Ultimately, the authorities ordered the Jewish community to pay for the gold letters that would spell out these sacred words, which were then placed around the statue’s neck as a symbolic degradation of the Jewish religion. Today, over three centuries later, those letters are still there.
We cannot imagine the type of powerful, long-lasting repercussions that can result even from trivial actions. Before we do anything, we must remind ourselves that we are in golus, guests in a land that is not ours, and we must act accordingly.
Around a year ago, the Rockland Country Executive Edward Day publicized a photograph that was taken of a frum family in Haverstraw Bay Park, with one of their children sitting on a 9/11 memorial statue. “As one who responded to the first attack on the World Trade Center,” he wrote, “I am personally troubled that these sites, designed for peaceful, quiet reflection, are increasingly being used as jungle gyms.” Day’s comment solicited a deluge of scathing condemnations of religious Jews – an important reminder that we are living in a society in which every action is seen and can have repercussions.
Much has been written about the difference between life in small communities and in areas with large Jewish populations, but one aspect of life in a more heavily Jewish area is the magnified potential for chillul Hashem. At the same time, the converse is also true: The capacity of a large Jewish community to foster a kiddush Hashem far exceeds that of a smattering of individual Jews. An individual can have some impact on others, but only a large collective can truly change the world.
Rabbi Avi Shafran once presented an interesting thesis on why there are occasional onslaughts of chillul Hashem and negative stories in the media about Jews, while at other times the world’s outlook seems to be more positive. “I picture a spiritual cloud of sorts, an amorphous mass of minor acts of chillul Hashem,” he explained. “Any time a Jew blocks traffic by double parking, or is impatient with a clerk at a supermarket or cuts corners while doing his taxes, a bit of malign moisture is added to that chillul Hashem cloud. And when it is sufficiently heavy, it rains down on our heads, and into the media, in the form of a large and public desecration of G-d’s Name.”
At the same time, he adds, when there are enough Jews who are polite, considerate, and honest, their actions create a “cloud” of kiddush Hashem. Once again, when that “cloud” reaches its point of saturation, it “rains” down in the form of a global focus on all that is positive about the Jewish people.
Let us never fail to remember that while each of us may think we are only raindrops, in truth we are all part of a flood.
In Tefillas Haderech, we ask Hashem to give us “charm, kindness, and mercy in Your Eyes and in the eyes of all who see us.” Today, more than ever, we must daven for this with the utmost intensity. Every time we set foot outside our homes and our communities, we must recognize that our actions and their repercussions can travel much farther than we could ever imagine.
By Rabbi Shraga Freedman, author of “Living Kiddush Hashem.” For a free download of Sefer Mekadshei Shemecha and other resources contact mifalkiddushhashem@