The Hebrew phrase, “Kiddush Hashem” is translated as “sanctification of the Name”; the Name being God’s name. For 2,000 years, it has been a synonym for Jewish martyrdom. How strange, then, to read a blog entry entitled, “a Kiddush Hashem Goes Viral.” The Kiddush Hashem in this instance, though, is a photo of a young African American man sleeping on a New York subway with his head resting on the shoulders of a 61-year old man wearing a kippah. Here’s a link to the original Reddit post:
What does this simple act of kindness have to do with martyrdom? The answer is that when a Jew, publicly identified as a Jew (in this case, by wearing a kippah), does a good deed it reflects well not just on the individual and not just on the Jewish people, but on God Him/Herself. By showing that someone who identifies as a Jew acts kindly, it sanctifies God and God’s teachings.
Maimonides said that we perform acts of Kiddush Hashem whenever we treat others with respect or conduct business affairs honestly. That those who engage in such right conduct are equated with the holy martyrs of our tradition speaks to the great value our tradition places on everyday acts of kindness.
The converse is true as well. A “Hillul Hashem,” literally a desecration of [God’s] Name, occurs when a publicly identified Jew engages in disgraceful behavior. One recent, notorious example is a Hasidic leader convicted of sex abuse who appeared in court for his sentencing in his Hasidic garb. The Jewish swindler Bernie Madoff is another.
If one takes any of this seriously, it’s an awesome responsibility: To cheat, steal, or act meanly is not just to bring shame and disrepute on oneself and one’s family, but to insult God. But, one who acts kindly (especially if the kindness is captured by a cellphone camera and posted to Reddit) is to be worthy of the greatest merit.