The custom is fairly prevalent nowadays, but it was not a common practice 30 years ago when my friend raised his sons. He would seek out especially pious rabbis, generally quite elderly ones, to request that they bless his children.
In keeping with tradition, these rabbis would place a hand upon the head of the little boy, perhaps quote a biblical verse or two expressing blessing, and then say something like, “May he grow up to be a talmid chacham” or “May he grow up to be an ehrliche yid (a righteous Jew).”
But I will never forget the day that my friend and his young son encountered Rabbi Israel Gustman, of blessed memory, and requested a blessing. My friend came to me just moments after he received the blessing and asked me what I thought the old rabbi meant by it. For, you see, the rabbi gave a blessing which was unprecedented and unexpected. He did place his hand upon my friend’s son’s head, and did utter an appropriate biblical verse. But then he said something quite puzzling:
“May he grow up to be a boy like all other boys.”
I must admit that it took me quite a while until I became convinced that I understood the meaning of the rabbi’s mysterious message.
Understanding that message required the knowledge of a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23). It also required knowing something about Rabbi Gustman’s tragic life.
The verse to which I refer reads, “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people.” (Leviticus 22:32). This verse is the source text for two opposing concepts which lie at the core of Jewish belief. One concept, the negative one, is chillul Hashem, the profanation of G-d’s name, behavior which disgraces the Divine reputation. The opposite concept is kiddush Hashem, behavior which sanctifies G-d’s name and thus brings prestige and honor to Him.
Rabbi Gustman was a brilliant Talmud student. As a young man, he was betrothed to the daughter of the rabbi of one of the small suburbs of the great prewar Jewish metropolis of Vilna. Soon after his marriage, his father-in-law died, leaving the position of rabbi of that community to his son-in-law, Rabbi Gustman.
The towering rabbinic figure in Vilna in those immediate prewar years was Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski. Rabbi Chaim Ozer was so impressed by this young man that, despite his age, he included him in his rabbinic court. Soon afterwards, the war broke out. Rabbi Gustman managed to survive by hiding in an array of unimaginable circumstances — in the forest, in a cave, in a pig pen, and in the abandoned ghetto of Vilna. In the course of his flight and evasion of the Nazis, his little son was murdered in front of his eyes. He would recount the story of how he witnessed his son’s murder and of how he was forced to take his dead son’s shoes and sell them for food.
Rabbi Gustman survived the Holocaust, emigrated to the United States, and eventually settled in Israel. There, he lived and taught in a small yeshiva in Jerusalem and experienced the various wars of those years. He carefully and compassionately made it his business to comfort the bereaved parents of fallen soldiers by sharing with them his grief over his own fallen son.
He was overheard telling a bereaved father that in a certain sense, his soldier son was superior to the rabbi’s own son. “Both your boy and mine,” he said, “sanctified G-d’s name by their death. They were both killed because they were Jews. But in the synagogue in heaven, where they both reside now, my son is sitting in the pews. Your son is the shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader. This is because my son died as a passive victim, whereas your son died as a hero, leading a group of soldiers in defense of our land and our people.”
These two boys performed the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem by virtue of their death. But that is only one way to perform that mitzvah. There is another way to perform the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, and that is by sanctifying G-d’s name not in death, but in life, by living one’s daily life in a meritorious fashion.
The Talmud, for example, tells us of one great sage who felt that had he purchased meat in a butcher store on credit, without paying immediately, he would be guilty of profaning G-d’s name. By simply paying his bills immediately, not allowing anyone to suspect that he was taking advantage of his rabbinical position, he was performing the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem.
The Mishnah in the tractate of Megilah teaches us that when a Jew simply attends the synagogue and participates in the recitation of the devarim shebekedusha, the sacred passages of our liturgy, he is fulfilling the mitzvah referred to in our verse, sanctifying G-d through his prayers.
Thus, there are ways to sanctify G-d not by suffering a martyr’s death, but by living an ethical and spiritual life. The Talmud says that should others comment favorably on a person’s behavior, complimenting his parents for having raised him in the path of the Torah, that person has sanctified and glorified G-d’s name.
Now we are in a position to understand the seemingly strange blessing which Rabbi Gustman gave my friend’s little boy. “I bless you”, he was saying, “that you just be like other boys, like boys in peaceful times. I bless you that you not suffer times of persecution and that you never need to experience the battlefield. I bless you that you sanctify G-d in your ordinary life, in life and not, G-d forbid, in tragic death.”
In his blessing, he envisioned a time when little boys would not have to grow up to be soldiers and would not be hunted down and shot as his son was. He foresaw a time when this boy could be like other boys, living an ordinary life, full of living acts of kiddush Hashem.
During the past several weeks, Jewish people have commemorated the kiddush Hashem of Rabbi Gustman’s son, a Holocaust victim, by observing Yom HaShoah. We also commemorated the kiddush Hashem of the young soldier whose bereaved father Rabbi Gustman so poignantly consoled by observing Yom HaZikaron.
We all pray for the time when boys will not be forced to perform the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem by giving up their lives, but will be able to do so by living their lives; a time when “boys will just be like other boys,” allowed to emerge from their childhood alive and well, entering adulthood in a world at peace, able to sanctify G-d in their faith and in their noble accomplishments.