For Heaven’s Sake: The Jewish People

By BJLife/Rabbi Reuven Taragin
Posted on 02/11/24

As we saw in the last piece, Pirkei Avot explains that the world was created for the glory of G-d. Though the whole universe proclaims this notion, man is uniquely able to appreciate and express it.

After the failures and challenges of humanity’s first generations, Avraham Avinu emerged as the one who recognized this calling. His recognition is the backdrop to the purpose and unique mission of his descendants — the Jewish people.

Our Purpose and Importance

The Midrash[1] learns from a pasuk in Sefer Yeshayahu[2] (that appears in the same perek as the pasuk quoted by Avot) that the Jewish people were created in order to sing Hashem's praises.[3] The Midrash takes this further by asserting that the Jewish people themselves embody G-d’s glory and that one of the purposes of our galut (exile) is to spread G-d’s name worldwide.

This explains why the Jewish people are central to the world’s creation and continued existence. Rashi[4] (quoting the Midrash) derived this idea from the Torah’s very first word — Bereishit.[5] The word implies that Hashem created the world for “things called reishit” — the Torah and the Jewish people. Since the world’s raison d’etre is to honor Hashem, it focuses on Am Yisrael, who learn Torah and affirm Hashem’s honor by living Torah-inspired lives.

The Netziv used creation’s focus on Torah learning to explain the Behag’s characterization of Sefer Shemos as “Sefer Ha’sheini.”[6] Why would Shemot be described as a mere continuation of Sefer Bereishit and not receive its own independent name and identity? The Netziv explains that the name reflects the fact that creation, and thereby Sefer Bereishit, were incomplete until the Jewish people accepted the Torah in Sefer Shemot.[7] Sefer Shemot is, therefore, the Sefer Ha’sheini — the continuation and completion of Sefer Bereishit.

Our Role: Kiddush Hashem

This helps explain the importance of kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) and the severity of chillul Hashem (desecration of His name).

Like the prohibition against idolatry, chillul Hashem is one of the few aveirot we are commanded to sacrifice our lives to avoid.[8] The Sefer HaChinuch explains that “the root of this commandment is well-known: man was created only to serve his Creator.”[9] We should show that we are entirely dedicated to and prepared to sacrifice our lives for avodat Hashem.

This beautifully explains why, in the “Al Ha’nisim” prayer recited on Chanukah, we mention: “And You made Yourself a great and sanctified name in Your world” before “and for Your people, Yisrael, You performed a great deliverance and redemption.”[10] One would have expected the order of these phrases to be reversed — first mention the salvation of Klal Yisrael and then the kiddush Hashem. The actual order reflects the fact that kiddush Hashem is of primary importance. This is because it is the mission we exist to accomplish. It is the reason for and purpose of our survival.[11]

Our Eternality

This is also how the Midrash explains why the Jewish people are eternal. Based on another pasuk in Sefer Yeshayahu,[12] the Midrash teaches that just as Hashem is eternal, so are the Jewish people because they proclaim His glory and sing His praises.[13] 

Yechezkel Hanavi uses this idea to explain the Jewish people’s past and future. In Perek 20, he describes how, even though the Jews were not worthy of redemption, Hashem took them out of Mitzrayim anyway in order to avoid a chillul Hashem.[14] Similarly, even when the Jews continued rebelling against Him in the desert, Hashem maintained a relationship with them — again, to avoid a chillul Hashem.[15] 

In Perek 36, Yechezkel Hanavi speaks about the great chillul Hashem generated by the Jewish people’s presence in galut. The central goal of the eventual redemption is to repair this chillul Hashem with a bigger kiddush Hashem.[16] This is why Shemoneh Esrei’s first berachah describes Hashem’s deliverance of the Jewish people as “for the sake of His name.”


Our Unity

Our definition and mission as the people created to sing Hashem’s praises is meant to unify[17] all Jews.[18] Amos described the Jewish people as “Hashem’s group [that He founded] on Earth.”[19] We should use our common mission to foster unity by emphasizing our joint role as members of Hashem’s “team.”

This achdut is not just an ideal; it is a mitzvah. Chazal employ Amos’s words as the philosophical (and textual) basis of the prohibition against dividing into separate groups.[20] Seeing ourselves as Hashem’s people should keep us from subdividing.

This is the logic behind the famous comparison of a fractured Jewish people to an individual drilling a hole under his seat on a boat he shares with others.[21] We, the Jewish people, are “all in the same boat” because we have a shared mission of highlighting Hashem’s glory in our world. We are meant to work on this mission together, unified as one.

Ideally, this mission should unify not only Jews but also humanity. Based on our mishnah, the Ramchal explains that when each part of G-d’s world properly fulfills its purpose and mission, it connects with the rest of the universe as one entity unified by focusing on, appreciating, and celebrating G-d’s presence in our world.[22]

The Jewish people are meant to inspire all of humanity to recognize this common goal. Tzefanyah[23] describes how Hashem will eventually bring the whole world to “clearly invoke Hashem’s name and serve Him together.” Tzefanyah’s language calls to mind the Torah’s description of the builders of the Tower of Bavel. They, too, were unified, but their goal was glorifying their own name. Eventually, the world will unify around celebrating Hashem’s name.

This is the vision we describe in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tefillot. We express our yearning for the day when all of humanity “will form a single band to do Your (Hashem’s) Will with a perfect heart.”

May we, the Jewish people, use our shared purpose to unify ourselves, and subsequently all humanity, around the mission of proclaiming Hashem’s glory in the world — together!

[1] Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 5:6.

[2] Yeshayahu 43:21.

[3] The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Torat Menachem 2:480) derives from the fact that the pasuk links the creation of the Jewish people with their singing of Hashem’s praises that the Jewish people have no other basis for existence.

[4] Rashi, Bereishit 1:1.

[5] Bereishit 1:1.

[6] Netziv, Ha’emek Davar, Introduction to Sefer Shemos. Understandably, the Netziv builds off our Mishnah.

[7] This also explains why Hashem hinged creation upon the Jewish people’s acceptance of Torah (Avodah Zarah 3a).

[8] In fact, the Gemara (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sanhedrin 107a) teaches that “chillul Hashem is even more severe than avodah zarah.” (See Rashi there [D”H Mutav] who explains that the Gemara says this only about a communal chillul Hashem.)

The Rambam’s inclusion of the topic in his Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah (Perek 5) also reflects its significance. See also Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah (1:4) where he explains that only chillul Hashem requires all four components of kaparah to achieve forgiveness.

[9] Sefer HaChinuch 296:2.

[10] “Al Ha’nisim,” Siddur Tefillah, Amida.

[11] I heard this idea from Rav Daniel Fine of London, England.

[12] Yeshayahu 48:9.

[13] Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 5:6. This idea is expressed by Moshe Rabbeinu in his tefillah to Hashem after the chet ha’egel (Shemos 32:12). Moshe defends the Jews with the claim that their destruction would negatively impact G-d’s own name and reputation. In addition to our existence playing a positive role, our destruction (chas v’shalom) would have a negative impact.

[14] Yechezkel 20:9.

[15] Yechezkel 20:14.

[16] Yechezkel 36:20–26. See also Ramban (Devarim 32:26,40) who explains pesukim in Devarim based on the pesukim in Yechezkel.

[17] Rav Kook, in a very powerful piece (Olas Hare’iyah, Likutim, pg. 247), writes about how shalom and achdus can be rooted either in utilitarian goals of wanting to be able to function together as a society, or, ideally, in the sharing of common goals. When it is the former, the achdus lasts only as long as the utilitarian benefits apply. When the peace and unity are motivated by shared goals, they can truly be long lasting.

[18] This joint definition and mission should be the basis of a healthy marriage. This is why the first brachah of Sheva Berachos is “She’hakol bara lichvodo.” Though this brachah does not mention marriage, we begin with it because awareness of and commitment to this joint goal can help a couple transcend their natural selfishness and commit to live and work together with one another. This idea is expressed in Tehillim 128 (recited by German Jews at the chuppah), which describes how yirei Shamayim have their family unified around them. They provide their family with a higher mission they can all rally around.

[19] Amos 9:6.

[20] Sifri, Re’eh, piska 44.

[21] Vayikra Rabbah 4:6.

[22] Ramchal, Da’as Tevunos 125–126.

[23] Tzefanyah 3:9.