Drash on Parashat Yitro 2014

Drash on Parashat Yitro
Rabbi Stanton Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong

Torah Translations are valuable tools in modern Jewish life, but we students of Torah must always be mindful that even the best translation is a blunt instrument. The translator simultaneously opens and closes the text for us. One meaning becomes clear, even as other possible interpretations are foreclosed. The Italian adage (which I only know in English) "translation is treason" overstates the case a bit, but the saying serves as a needed caution against confusing a correct rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures with complete understanding.

In this week's parasha, Parashat Yitro, we see a demonstration of the difficulty of pinning down even a single Hebrew word to one precise English equivalent. In Exodus 20:7 we are commanded as follows (the verse is quoted in a combination of English and "Heblish" to preserve the ambiguity):

"You shall not tisa (lit. lift up) the name of Adonai your God for shav".

The problem is the word "shav". The word is highly nuanced, which is reflected in the differing translations we find of the Third Commandment.

The old JPS version gives us: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain"-- precisely the same translation as in the King James Bible.

The new JPS translation does not just jettison the "Bible-ese" of its predecessor, but also renders "shav" quite differently: “ You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God.”

Both translations capture a facet of this elusive word, which can mean vain, false, empty, worthless, and more. The Rabbis see the Third Commandment as prohibiting a b'racha l'vatala, a blessing over nothing: “Whoever says a blessing that is not called for violates the intent of the verse, ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.'" (Berachot 33a) Nahum Sarna in his Commentary on Exodus notes that "the ambiguities [of the verse] allow for the proscription of perjury by the principals in a lawsuit, swearing falsely, and the unnecessary or frivolous use of the Divine Name." There is a creative freedom in the slipperiness of the Hebrew word shav that allows a broad circle of protection to be drawn around the name of God.

Oath-swearing is not a common phenomenon in our lives, yet there are still falsities and vanities in modern life to which the Third Commandment applies. The word "God," is not itself The Name (hence no need for the over-cautious "G-d"), but it does point to the Holy One and is therefore worthy of respect. Invoking the word casually and frivolously, whether in actual speech or in SMS invocations of "OMG," should be avoided. We should also think carefully whether "it" needs to be damned as often as our use of the imprecation seems to imply. Yes, these are small infractions, but in our tradition little things matter. It is through small, daily acts that the overall spiritual atmosphere of our lives is formed. Reverent speech inclines us toward a reverent life.

In his book the Ten Commandments and Human Rights, the late Biblical scholar Walter J. Harrelson argues that l'shav has a more malicious connotation than "in vain". "Rather than being an expression for emptiness or insubstantiality, the term carries with it the active power for harm," he writes. The prohibition of the Third Commandment is thus aimed at the use of the Divine Name as an offensive weapon. With this in mind, Harrelson translates l'shav as "for mischief".

In its original context, the idea that the name of God could be used to inflict harm on another was rooted in a belief in "the magical or almost magical power inherent" in the Divine Name. This does not mean that we moderns are incapable of violating the spirit of the Third Commandment. We simply do so by different means. In lieu of curses, many weaponize the name of God by deploying it to justify their cruelty and intolerance. Harrelson eloquently assesses the cost of this: "When religion is turned perversely against the very means it uses to bring blessing, then the springs are poisoned and little can be done. How massive is the damage done by those who have lifted up God's name for mischief."

Anytime we attempt to remake God in our image, anytime we express the certainty that God disapproves of the same people we do, anytime we claim that God is in full agreement with us that only our way is the right way, we know that we have stepped over the red line of shav. We know that our assertions are vain, empty, false, and can only lead to mischief.

While the Divine Name must be handled with care, it is not taboo. Out of reverence, we do not pronounce the four letter name of God, but we are nevertheless meant to access its holiness. We are meant to invoke HaShem to bless, to heal, and to praise. We are not always capable of the spiritual refinement this requires. Our pettiness and prejudices may get in the way. If this happens, silence is always preferable to shav.

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