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Taking the lord's name in vain?   #765

02/10/2023 05:04:11 AM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Yitro
“Thou shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." Exodus 20:7
Taking the lord's name in vain?

In Jerusalem’s Arab market you can meet good people and not so good people.

Late in 1998, while touring Israel with my family before ATMs were widespread, I entered the Arab market in search of a money changer.

It was late December after dark, and because it was Saturday, no banks were open. After a few moments, a fellow on a well-lit side street called out to me, “Are you looking to exchange American dollars?”

“Yes, I am,” I cautiously replied. 

I handed the changer two crisp $50 bills, and moments later—having completed my questionable transaction—our family proceeded into the market loaded with a few hundred shekels.

His parting words to me were Ramadan Mubarak, meaning a “happy” or “generous” Ramadan. We were in the first week of Islam’s 40 days of fasting and reflection.

Interestingly, on that day, not only had we just completed Shabbat, but it was also Chanukah, Christmas Day and Ramadan.

You could feel God’s presence everywhere. About five minutes after completing the transaction, I heard a voice from behind on the market’s main thoroughfare shouting. “Adoni, adoni.” Translated – “Sir, Sir!!”

It was the money changer. “I have been looking for you. I think you made a mistake."

As I turned around, the changer, catching his breath, put his hand on my shoulder, and then pressed two fresh $50 bills into my palm.

“These bills were stuck to the back of the money you gave me to exchange. I am sure you did not notice. I cannot ever disgrace God, especially on Ramadan. Here is your extra money back.”

I was stunned. We shook hands and went our separate ways.

I’ve always remembered that encounter. It taught me that there can be civility and honesty even in the open market, where amidst wheeling and dealing, it is usually “buyer beware.”

But what I was most impressed by, was the changer’s morality, inspired by God.

About seven years later, I found myself in the same market. I was in Jerusalem completing a month’s study before entering rabbinical school.

As I passed through the stalls, returning from the Western Wall, I noticed a shiny white necklace on the top shelf of one of the small stores.

“Come in,” said the owner. And within a few minutes I was running my fingers over the surface of the necklace.

“How much?” I asked. “These are pearls. Four hundred dollars,” he replied.  I rolled my eyes and placed the necklace back on the shelf. And, as you can imagine, negotiations quickly followed.

I was in a rush, so we quickly settled on $100. As I took out my money, showing a bit of caution, I asked, “Are you sure these are real?”

He replied, “They are. I swear to God.”

A few days later, the necklace was around my wife’s neck. As we sat in a restaurant, celebrating my return, I noticed something odd about the pearls. The paint on one of them was peeling.

Ultimately, this was another lesson I learned at the shuk. As I reflect upon it now, I’m not sure, if in my hurry, I would have bought the necklace, had the seller not assured me with the words, “I swear."

I often recall these two examples, which occurred in the world’s holiest city, as God’s name was summoned – one for good and the other for not so good.

I thought about both incidents as I reviewed this week’s Torah portion – Yitro – which contains the Ten Commandments.

Many of the commandments easily come to mind. “Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not murder. Do not covet…Honor your mother and father.”

But this year, the one I found myself reflecting upon was, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Exodus 20:7  What does that truly mean?

When we get cut off during a customer service call, when we stub our toe, when something we’ve been working on vanishes from our computer monitor, many of us utter an expression that includes a combination of God and the hereafter.

Is that using the Lord’s name in vane? I hope not. In Quebec where I was raised, one does not swear referring—as is the case elsewhere—to various bodily activities.

A recent Internet article titled The Science of Swearing, references a typical flurry of curses one may hear at a Montreal Canadiens hockey game, or at a drinking establishment.

Criss de calice de tabarnak d’osti de sacrament! which translates literally to “Christ of the chalice of the tabernacle of the host of the sacrament!” As the article notes, “This might sound tame in English, but it’s the French-Canadian equivalent of a hail of F-bombs.

These apparently sacrilegious words are as common in Quebec as OMG is here. But is it using the Lord’s name in vain

One of my Hebrew school teachers explained the commandment this way. “Using God’s name when we are cursing is not polite, nor respectful, nor kind, but it is part of the world around us. It is not out of the ordinary.

“But what is using God’s name in vain is when you say “I didn’t do it, or believe me—I swear to God.”

Because when we utter God’s name as our ultimate guarantor of our actions or intentions, we are drawing God into our dishonesty, and that, indeed, is a sin against God.

For once we underscore our integrity "in God’s name," there is no comeback.

There is a reason why witnesses in court place their hand on a holy book. It is because of the third commandment, which forbids using God’s name in vain, thus guaranteeing the testimony’s truth.

For when we utter anything in God’s name, we place upon our words and our actions the highest stamp of integrity.

This basic interpretation of the third commandment, in my view, accepts that from time-to-time, each of us needs to release a bit of anger and frustration.

But let us also ensure that when we swear in God’s name, we do so in honor and in truth, as we embrace the highest power at the highest level. Indeed, let all of our references to God be goodly and honorable.

I am reminded of that every time I see my wife’s peeled necklace at the bottom of her jewelry case.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784