Martyrdom & Sanctifying God's Name

In the Yizkor memorial prayer which we say on the holidays, we commemorate the souls of the martyrs who were "killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned and strangled" for the sanctification of the Name.

This raises two questions: Why is it considered sanctifying God's name if the victims went involuntary? And in general how is God's name sanctified through the slaughter of his people?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem -- sanctification of God's Name -- is based on the verse, "I will be sanctified amongst the Children of Israel" (Leviticus 22:32). A Jew is obligated to act in a manner which causes others to regard God's name with reverence. The ultimate expression of this is when a Jew gives up his most valued possession -- his life -- for God, His Torah, and His values. (Maimonides - Yesoday Hatorah 5:1,11; Sefer Hachinuch #296)

This assumes that a Jew realizes that he's fulfilling this great mitzvah. This begs the question, what if he went involuntarily -- i.e. he specifically did not want to sanctify God's name? Furthermore, what about a 2-year old child that had no inkling of why he's dying?

Except for the known, inspiring stories of those such as Rabbi Elchanon Wasserman, who encouraged the victims as they were about to be killed, to purify their thoughts so as to be "unblemished sacrifices," we don't know what anyone was thinking when they were about to be shot, gassed or eliminated by the evil Nazis. The killers, however did know that they were killing Jews. And so did the nations of the world.

When a Jew is killed or suffers simply because he is Jewish, the uniqueness of the nation is thus underscored, and as it is deemed that he is dying for a Godly cause, God's Name is sanctified. Even if one did not do the will of his Master during his lifetime, when killed for just being Jewish, he is classified as a "servant" and his entire life is sanctified. ("Shoah" - ArtScroll, pg. 206-7)

There is another aspect of Kiddush Hashem. In Numbers 20:12,13 we read of the incident of Moses hitting the rock. Rashi there explains: "God's name is sanctified when judgment is done against His beloved, as He becomes feared and sanctified by the people." God is revered as an effective power that can carry out His word when justice in Godly terms is carried out.

Rashi mentions this idea in Leviticus 10:3: "When God executes judgment on the righteous, He is feared, awed and praised, and surely when He judges the wicked."

From this perspective, we can already begin to understand that even if the victim dies unwillingly, his death may still ultimately result in a Kiddush Hashem.

I have heard it explained that while many of the Holocaust victims did not have intention for Kiddush Hashem, there are an equal number of Jews who are ready to do such an act of sanctification, if ever called upon. We say this every day in the Shema prayer -- "to serve God with all your heart, with all your LIFE, and with all your resources..." We recall the Talmudic story of Rebbe Akiva experiencing an aspect of joy at being killed by the Romans, saying that all his life he was prepared to give up everything for God, and now that potential is being actualized. So as the Jewish people are one singular unit, the Almighty takes the intentions of those willing to sanctify, and unites those thoughts with the deeds of those who actually did sanctify.

For a powerful presentation of this idea, read "The Six Million Kedoshim" by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, and "Understanding the Holocaust" by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits.

One final thought: When contemplating the self-sacrifice of the Jewish martyrs, Rabbi Noach Weinberg's question constantly rings in my ear: "You may be willing to die for God, are you willing to live for God?"

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