Pardon me by writing once again about last week’s parsha. With The Ten Commandments at its center, it was a biggie and I wanted to speak about the most underrated of them all – the command not to take God’s name in vain. We can understand how the rest of the Big Ten made it to that list but this one is a bit of a head scratcher.
I totally get the first two – Knowledge of God and a relationship with Him and not to believe there are any other gods. We can also understand why Shabbat is in the line-up being such a pivotal and important mitzvah that defines our people. As well as that all-important Honouring Parents who gave you life to begin with. And then we get to the second set of tablets which is prime material for Hollywood movies: Murder, Adultery, Theft, False Witnesses (nothing like a good court-room drama) and the root of it all – Coveting and Envy.
But taking God’s name in vain? How did that slip in there? I don’t think a move entitled, “The God-Name Abuser” would be a Netflix hit. Even with the cast of Fauda. Ok, it’s not a good thing to be so casual with God’s name, but why such top billing?
Firstly we need to understand what Jewish tradition means by taking God’s name in vain. The rabbis in the Talmud give the example of a person using God’s name in an oath to declare something obvious, such as swearing with God’s name that a hammer is a hammer. Or the opposite, that a hammer is a saw. The bottom line is that there should be a respect for God’s name and we shouldn’t use the word, “God” in a casual or flippant manner. But still, ok not nice, by what’s so terrible that it is listed in The Ten Commandments.
It all has to do with the power of speech. And speech and words are pretty powerful. They can change the course of history as we shall soon see. On the other hand, words can be rendered impotent if we are not careful with how we use them. Words, when misused, can totally lose their meaning.
Take the word, “awesome”. Once upon a time that word expressed the fear, wonder and smallness – all at the same time – one felt when beholding something so large and beyond our puny selves like the millions of stars in the sky or the power of the ocean or Niagara Falls. But then in the 80’s, Valley girls used it to describe everything. “Your shoes are awesome! Your hair is awesome! Your skirt is awesome! You’reawesome!” Everything became awesome. And as a result, nothing was awesome. Today, when we utter the word, “awesome”, it leaves our mouth and drips from our lips, falling flat on the floor, helpless to express the true nature of that which we wish to describe. All because it has been corrupted. Misused, abused and over-used.
Today the same can be said for the word, “amazing”. Everything is amazing. And so nothing is amazing. We can go on and on. If you don’t like something or someone, they are a Nazi or Communist, depending which political stripe you may be. Robert Kennedy Jr. compares vaccine mandates to Nazism. I can’t imagine how my father, a Holocaust survivor, would react to such an absurdity. Actually I can. “The man is an idiot” is what he would say.
One doesn’t increase the gravity of their argument with such spurious comparisons. All it does is diminish the true evil of Nazism or Communism, whichever comparison is being made. It further confuses our already confused world to what true evil is all about.
World leaders became leaders, for better or worse, because of their great rhetorical ability. Words, speech, and speeches can change everything and alter the trajectory of lives for millions. Hitler was a nobody until he started giving speeches. He was a complete loser, never finishing high school and failing at become an artist. “For some years he lived a lonely and isolated life, earning a precarious livelihood by painting postcards and advertisements and drifting from one municipal hostel to another.” (Britannica.com) Everything changed once he got on his soapbox and started giving speeches of his views of Germany, the world and those evil Jews.
Thankfully at that time, on the other end of the spectrum, there was another great orator who rallied forces for good in the world. Among his great speeches, Churchill’s words to the Houses of Commons on June 4th, 1940 rallied the free world to stand and fight the tyranny of Nazism.
We shall not flag or fail
We shall go on to the end
We shall fight in France
We shall fight on the seas and oceans…
We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be
We shall fight on the beaches
We shall fight on the landing grounds
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets
We shall fight in the hills
We shall never surrender!
Words that changed our world.
So it makes perfect sense that taking God’s name in vain should be in The Ten Commandments. If we go around OMGing everything, the most important word, because it’s the name of the most important Being, becomes meaningless. And if the name of God becomes meaningless, what hope is there for any other words in our lexicon?
Words change everything. Words build people, communities, nations and the world. They can also destroy people, communities, nations and our world. The Jewish people are famous for our words of Torah and Prayer. Words of wisdom to better our world, and words of praise and thanks to God are our hallmark. We must always strive to be careful with how we use our words and be mindful to choose them wisely. Especially the name of God.
History recalls how great the fall can be
While everybody’s sleeping, the boats put out to sea
Borne on the wings of time
It seemed the answers were so easy to find
“Too late,” the prophets cry
“The island’s sinking, let’s take to the sky”