Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Parsha Yitro: What "Not Taking G-d's Name in Vain" Means

In this week's Torah portion, the Ten Commandments (עשרת הדברות; better translated as the "Ten Things" or "Ten Statements"), or the Decalogue, are presented to the Jewish people. The Ten Commandments are not only important in Judaism, but they have shaped the Western World because of Christianity. I find that one of the most misunderstood of these is the Third Commandment, the one that discusses taking the L-rd's name in vain (Exodus 20:7). For Christians, this commandment speaks to the idea of capriciously using his name where it is void of meaning, such as when people say "OMG." This is not to say that Christians are wrong in this case. After all, this was Nachmanides' interpretation of the verse. Even though this interpretation is valid, what I would like to show is that the verse goes well beyond that one application.

In his commentary on the verse, Rashi interprets the verse in the context of giving vows and oaths. While citing the Talmud (Shavuot 21a), Rashi points out that the word לשוא (in vain) appears twice in the verse. The first time is in reference to something that is known to be false, which happens to be the interpretation of Sforno. The second time refers to something that is so blatantly true (e.g., wood comes from a tree) that a usage of an oath is unnecessary. Giving an oath or a vow has gravitas in Judaism, so I can see how these rabbis concluded accordingly.

Leading into the next alternative interpretation, I would like to ask the question "What's in a name?" Names are not random or accidental phonemes. Names have meaning; they convey one's nature and essence. In the context of G-d, it conveys transcendence, Infinite Oneness, greatness, and goodness. G-d's name represents is thus treated with respect. With that being said, it's hardly a stretch to understand that when we refer to an act that is good "in His eyes," we use the term קדוש השם (literally means "sanctification of the name" or alternatively "sanctifying G-d). As such, "taking His name in vain" is not just about how we treat His name. It's about our ethical conduct. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Jewish Literacy, p. 56) makes an astute observation that לא תשא ("You shall not take") literally means "you shall not carry [G-d's name in vain]," which is another way of saying "don't use G-d to justify your selfishness." As R. Telushkin elucidates, "when a person commits an evil act, he discredits himself. But when a religious person commits an evil act in the name of G-d, he or she discredits G-d as well. And since G-d relies on religious people to bring knowledge of Him into the world, He pronounces this sin unpardonable."

When I initially read that, it felt like R. Telushkin was making too big of a leap with that interpretation. Then I looked at the Second Commandment, the one about idolatry, and juxtaposed the two. Idolatry is not just about prostrating before statues; it's about worshipping anything that isn't G-d. Idolatry takes place when money or power become our focus on life, not G-d. Anger is also considered a form of idolatry not only because it takes G-d out of the equation, but anger is based in egocentricity, or self-worship. As Rabbi Abraham ben Izra brings up in his commentary, when one invokes G-d [in an oath or vow] and doesn't keep the promise, it's as if one were denying G-d's existence. That's why I ultimately concluded that R. Telushkin's interpretation was not at all a stretch. Being Jewish means doing one's utmost to conduct oneself in accordance with G-d's will. Practitioners of other religions have similar obligations and expectations. For a Jew to act un-Jewishly is to metaphorically drag G-d's name through the mud. At least for me, when applied more broadly, it makes much more sense as to why violating this law would make it on the same list as not murdering, stealing, or bearing false witness. In summation, taking His name in vain is not solely limited to speech. It's about behaving like a mensch.

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