Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods

February 16, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Psalms/Tehilim, Yitro | 2 Comments
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Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:

           Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?

                        Who is like You, glorious in holiness,

                        Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)

Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1

eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)

The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant.  Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.

Yitro advises Moses in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro advises Moses
in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro and the First Commandment

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)

Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.

I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)

(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)

Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.

A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel.  Here are three examples:

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:

           Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,

                        Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!

            Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,

                      Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!

           The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;

                      The eil of magnificence is thundering.  (Psalm 29:1-3)

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.

Then the psalm declares:

And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!

Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,

                        And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever.  (Exodus 29:10)

Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.

The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.

Psalm 82

In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4

Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods.  “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.

Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.

            They neither know nor understand,

                      They walk around in darkness;

                      Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter.  (Psalm 82:5)

Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:

           I used to say to myself: You are elohim,

                      And children of the Most High, all of you.

           Nevertheless, you will die like humans,

                      And you will fall like one of the princes.  (Psalm 82:6-7)

Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.

On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.

Psalm 97

           The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;

                        All the peoples saw Its magnificence.

            Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,

                        Those who boast of the elilim.

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

             All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)

elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.

“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.

*

According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.

Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?

I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive.  The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.

A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.

My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction.  And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.

1  I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.

The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai  (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.

2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.

3  Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.

4  A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.

Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing

February 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Mishpatim | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

A covenant can be a comfort.  It’s reassuring to have a signed contract stating what you are required to do, and what the other party will do for you.  When we feel insecure about an arrangement, we say, “Can I have that in writing?”

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”) includes the first covenant in the Torah that is backed up in writing.  Yet it is broken sooner than any of the unwritten covenants in the book of Genesis/Bereishit—because one of the covenantal parties is God.

A classic covenant between two human beings is the compact between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan. Jacob heads back to Canaan with the family and livestock he acquired by serving Lavan for 20 years. Lavan, who does not want to lose his best employee, catches up with him on the heights of Gilead. They argue over who owns what, and then Lavan says:

So now, let us go and cut a brit, I and you… (Genesis/Bereishit 31:44)

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty.

Standing stone at Gezer, Israel

Standing stone
at Gezer, Israel

The two men set up a standing-stone and a mound of stones to serve as a boundary marker, a “witness”, and a sign of their brit.  Lavan announces the terms: neither man will pass that boundary with hostile intent; and in addition, Jacob will neither mistreat Lavan’s daughters nor take any additional wives.

Then each man swears by a different name of the same God. Finally, Jacob slaughters animals, and the two chieftains and their men feast on the mountain.

Both leaders carry out the terms of their brit. Each party gives up something that might be in his self-interest (invading the other’s territory) in order to gain something that is definitely in his self-interest (safety from invasion by the other). The terms are reasonable, and the men do not want to violate a treaty made with an accepted ritual in front of three kinds of witnesses: boundary stones, other human beings, and God.

A brit with God is not so straightforward.

The first two times God declares a brit with human beings, it is really a unilateral promise, with no obligation stipulated for the humans. In the Covenant of the Rainbow, God promises not to destroy the earth with a flood again. In the Covenant of the Pieces, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.

God’s third brit repeats that God will give Abraham’s descendants, and adds that God will “be a god” to them and make them “nations” and “kings”. Then God says:

This is my brit, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Let every male be circumcised. You shall all be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a sign of the brit between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)

Circumcision is the stipulated action for humans, the ritual, and the sign of the covenant, all in one. Jews have performed their part of the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for thousands of years, with or without possession of the land of Canaan, because it is an act of dedication to God—and each infant boy or adult male convert only has to go through it once.

In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God proposes a new brit, one that the commentary calls the Covenant of Blood. God gives the Israelites and their fellow-travelers the Ten Commandments, followed by a list of other laws, beginning with a second injunction against making “gods” of silver or gold, and ending (in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim) with: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus/Shemot 23:19)

In return for obeying all these laws, God promises the people that they will never get sick, their women will be fertile and never miscarry, none of their lives will be cut short, their enemies will run away from them, and they will gradually take over not only Canaan, but all the land from the Mediterranean to the eastern wilderness and from the Euphrates in the north to the Reed Sea in the south.

This is the third time God promises to give the Israelites possession of the Promised Land.  But it is the first and only time God promises to exempt the people from natural law by making them super-human, with bodies that are invulnerable to illness, infertility, miscarriage, and even accidental death. Such a deal!

Moses makes sure this new brit is ratified with elaborate ritual, symbolic reminders, and even a written copy.

Then Moses wrote down all the words of God, and he got up early in the morning, and he built an altar at the bottom of the mountain, and twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel.   … and they slaughtered animal-offerings of wholeness  for God … And half of the blood he sprinkled over the altar. And he took the Book of the Brit and he read it in the ears of the people, and they said: Everything that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen! Then Moses took the blood and he sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Here is the blood of the brit that God has cut with you concerning all these words! (Genesis 24:4-8)

The blood from the animal offerings is sprinkled both on the symbol of God (the altar), and on the people (or at least the elders in front). The people ratify the brit by shouting “we will do and we will listen”, indicating their willingness to obey not only these laws, but also any future laws God chooses to give them.

According to 20th-century commentator Nahum Sarna, the ritual is completed when God gives Moses an even more impressive symbolic reminder: a pair of stone tablets on which God writes the teachings and commandments.

The people violate their part of the brit only 40 days later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa. While Moses is receiving the stone tablets on top of Mount Sinai receiving, the Israelites below lose hope that he will ever return, and revert to their old ideas of God. When Moses comes down, the people are carousing in front of the Golden Calf, in clear violation of the rule against making a god of silver or gold. So the whole elaborate brit becomes null and void, and Moses smashes the tablets.

God never makes the Israelites super-human. But Moses does persuade God to forgive them. And God declares a second, modified brit in which God commits only to driving out the peoples living in Canaan. On their side, the Israelites must obey a list of rules that begins with refraining from cutting a brit with any of the peoples they are supposed to be displacing, and ends with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 34:10-26)

And God said to Moses: Write down for yourself these words, because according to these words I have cut a brit with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building,
by Adolph Weinman

The Ten Commandments are not explicitly mentioned, but most commentators assume they are included in the words Moses carves on a second pair of stone tablets.  Later the Israelites make a golden ark, following God’s instructions, and Moses places the tablets inside.

The Israelites continue to backslide on obeying God’s rules (though there is no record that they ever cook a kid in its mother’s milk).  In the book of Joshua, God does not drive their enemies away, so the Israelites conquer most of Canaan by conventional warfare. Thus the second brit between God and the Israelites is also a failure.

Yet the Torah continues to call the ark containing the stone tablets aron ha-brit, “Ark of the Covenant”, and it remains the Israelites’ most revered object until it disappears during the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.

A contract between two humans, or a treaty between two nations, is a practical affair. The obligations of both parties are feasible and spelled out clearly. The proper ritual and witnesses help to enforce the brit.

A brit between humans and God is more like a modern marriage covenant. Both parties make lifelong promises without any practical limitations.  The ritual, witnesses, symbols, and written documents have emotional importance, but they do not prevent either party from falling short. At some point, a spouse is psychologically unable to be as loving and supportive as he or she intended. At some point, a religious human being is psychologically unable to obey every rule she or he has taken on. And God, at best, appears to operate on a non-human timeline.

Sometimes a marriage ends in divorce, and sometimes a brit with God ends in apostasy. But often, spouses pull themselves together and rededicate themselves to their marriage. And often, people seeking God rededicate themselves to the search for morality and meaning.

Each story of a brit with God remains a reminder of God’s presence. Even today, the two sets of stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai loom in our subconscious minds, reminding us that even if full compliance is impossible in a covenant with God, it is still worth dedicating ourselves to the call.

 

Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents

February 3, 2015 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Yitro | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

“Heavy, man!”

When we said that, back in the 1970’s, we meant that something was impressive, difficult, or profound, not to be taken lightly. The Hebrew word for “heavy”, kaveid, has even more shades of meaning in the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

When God tells Moses his mission at the burning bush, Moses objects that he cannot speak to the Israelites and the Pharaoh in Egypt because his tongue is kaveid.

But Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I am not a man of words…because I am khevad mouth and khevad  tongue. (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

khevad (כְבַד) = heavy of. (Another formation from the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)

What does Moses mean by saying his mouth and tongue are heavy? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) wrote that Moses stammered or had a speech impediment.  His grandson Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) wrote that Moses was no longer proficient in Egyptian. Either way, Moses’ speech is kaveid because it is slow and difficult.

When Moses and Aaron first ask Pharaoh to give the Israelites a three-day vacation to worship their god, Pharoah increases his laborers’ workload instead, saying:

Tikhebad, the work, upon the men, and they must do it, and they must not deal in lying words. (Exodus/Shemot 5:9)

tikhebad (תִּכְבַּד) = it will weigh heavily, let it be heavy, it must be a burden. (A form of the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד.)

Pharoah’s heart (the seat of his thoughts and feelings, in Biblical Hebrew) also becomes heavy. After each divine miracle except the final one (the death of the firstborn), Pharaoh is tempted to let his slaves go on that three-day vacation. But then he reverts and refuses to change his economic and political system. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened six times, and made heavy (hakhebeid, הַכְבֵּד) five times. He is too stiff and too heavy to move.

Brick making Tomb of King  Rekhmire in Thebes

Brick making
Tomb of King Rekhmire in Thebes

Furthermore, the Torah describes four of the miraculous plagues (swarming insects, cattle disease, hail, and locusts) as kaveid, heavy, because they are so oppressive.

But when Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites and their fellow-travelers leave, we read:

And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot, about 600,000 strong men on foot, besides non-marchers. And also a mixed throng went up with them, and flocks and herds, very kaveid property. (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, magnificent.

For newly-freed slaves, they leave with a lot of property: their own livestock, and all the gold and silver objects the Egyptians gave them on their way out. As they march away, the abundance of their possessions is impressive.

God also wants to be impressive.  When the emigrants have entered the wilderness, God tells Moses that Pharoah’s army will pursue them, so that God can stage one last miracle at the Reed Sea.

…then ikavedah through Pharaoh and through all his army; … and the Egyptians will know that I am God. (Exodus 14:4, 14:17-18)

ikavedah (עִכָּבְדָה) = I will be recognized as important, I will be honored, I will be respected, I will appear magnificent. (A form of the root verb kaveid.)

The people reach Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (“his surplus”, the name of Moses’ father-in-law).  This is where God pronounces the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment begins with the word kaveid.

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you. (Exodus 20:12)

Kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = Honor! Respect! Treat as weighty, important!  (This imperative verb comes from the same root as the adjective kaveid.)

Honoring your parents sounds like a nice idea, but why is it one of God’s top ten rules?

In traditional commentary from the third century C.E. to the present, honoring your parents is a necessary step to honoring God, and neglecting your parents is an insult to God. One reason given is that your biological parents—and God—created you. However, the Talmud (Ketubot 103a) states that this commandment applies not only to biological parents, but also to step-parents and older brothers—and therefore, presumably, to adoptive parents.

The other traditional reason why honoring parents means honoring God is that parents must teach their children Jewish history and Torah. (Apparently reading books, including the Bible, is not enough; religious knowledge must be transmitted orally.) Children honor their parents by learning their religion and passing it on to the next generation.  Without this transmission, God would cease to be honored.

Underage children are supposed to honor their parents by learning Torah from them, and by obeying them (as long as the parental request does not contradict God’s will).

Adult children must honor their parents in other ways. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) explained that you honor your parents by making sure they have food, drink, clothing, and coverings, and by “leading them in and out”. (It was assumed that the responsible son continued living in his parents’ house, and so could always arrange to escort them.)

Rambam (12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides) added in his Mishneh Torah, book 14, that if a man’s parents are poor and their son is able to take care of them, he must do so. He must also treat his parents with the respect of a student for a teacher, performing personal services and rising before them. However, Rambam wrote, if a parent is mentally ill and the son can no longer bear the stress, he may move out and hire someone else to care for his parents.

All this deference and personal care, the commentary insists, is required regardless of whether your parents were kind to you as you grew up. Nowhere in the Torah are parents required to honor or love their children; they are only required to circumcise their sons, to teach their children God’s commandments, and to refrain from incest and child-sacrifice.

If your parents were kind to you, it is a natural human inclination to honor them. But even if your parents did not earn your gratitude or love, the commentary on the fifth of the Ten Commandments says you must still honor them—in order to honor God.

Maybe the fifth commandment adds “so that your days will lengthen” in order to encourage people to honor even difficult parents. A longer life would be an especially good reward if it gives you more years to enjoy life after your difficult parent has died.

Yet we can all observe that some of the most dutiful children die younger than some of the most neglectful.  A famous story in the Talmud (Chullin 142a) tells of a father who ordered his son to climb to the top of a building and bring down some chicks. The son “honored” his father by climbing up, and followed another Biblical rule that promises prolonged life by chasing away the mother bird before collecting her young.  On the way down the ladder, the son fell and died. The rabbis in the Talmud conclude that “there is no reward for precepts in this world”, and declare that the story is an argument in favor of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.

Since the commandment says: so that your days will lengthen upon the soil that God, your god, is giving to you, Hirsch and other commentators explained that honoring parents would prolong the period of time when the Israelites got to live in the “Promised Land” of Canaan.

But the commandment in this week’s Torah portion uses the singular “you” throughout.  I think the only way your days might be lengthened because you honor your parents is if each day feels longer to you.  We can only hope that the day seems longer because it is fuller and richer, not because you can hardly wait for it to be over!

What kind of “honor” do we owe our parents today?

I think we should kabeid  (honor) our own parents according to the way they have been kaveid (heavy) in their relations with us.  Has a parent been oppressive, or impressive?

If parents caused childhood trauma, and remain crushing impediments, I think we are entitled to “move away”, as Rambam suggested. We do not need to personally delegate a caregiver, when we pay taxes for social services that will maintain them.

If parents were magnificently kind and encouraging, we should pay them every feasible honor, and continue to learn from them.

And in between? How shall we honor parents who are burdensome, but not bad—heavy, but not heavies?

Yitro: The Power of the Name

January 13, 2014 at 11:47 am | Posted in Yitro | Leave a comment
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The Israelites and their fellow-travelers camp at Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and Moses tells them to prepare for a divine revelation. God comes down to the top of Mount Sinai with fire, smoke, lightning, thunder, and horn blasts. Then God makes ten statements, commonly called the “Ten Commandments”. First God declares Itself and tells the people not to worship other gods (or the gods of others; see my earlier post, Yitro: Not in My Face). God continues by telling them not to make or bow down to images.

The third commandment, according to the 1611 King James translation, is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

That is not a bad translation, although it raises the question of what it means to “take” God’s name “in vain”. Let’s look at the Hebrew words that translated as “take” and “in vain”.

You shall not nasa the name of God, your god, lashav; because God shall not leave unpunished whoever will nasa Its name lashav. (Exodus/Shemot 20:7)

nasa (נָשָׂא) = lift up, raise, carry, take on a burden, lift away a burden.

lashav (לַשָׁוְא) = for falsehood, for  deceit; for emptiness, needlessly, idly.

What does it mean to “raise” God’s name? It does not mean merely raising the subject of God. Nor does it mean praising God, anywhere in the Hebrew bible.

The consensus in ancient commentary is that “raising the name of God” means invoking God’s name while swearing an oath or vow. In the Hebrew bible, lifting up one’s hand often means taking an oath. Sometimes the bible uses the verb nasa (lift up) but omits the word for “hand” when someone swears an oath.

The Talmud devotes a whole tractate to oaths, and advises against swearing oaths whenever possible. About the same time, Philo of Alexandria wrote in On the Decalogue: “For an oath is the calling of God to give his testimony concerning the matters which are in doubt; and it is a most impious thing to invoke God to be witness to a lie.” God will not bear false witness, and therefore will punish anyone who swears falsely using God’s name.

The word lashav can mean either “for falsehood” or “for emptiness”. Invoking God’s name to support a false claim, or a promise that one might not carry out, denigrates God and denies God’s power. But what if you are in the habit of sprinkling God’s name throughout your conversation? Philo and 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra argued that this habit of invoking God for “emptiness” inevitably leads to using God’s name “for falsehood”.

Rabbis in the Talmud were so concerned about invoking God’s name for emptiness—i.e., idly or needlessly—that the mishnah (core text) of tractate Berakhot says anyone who invents trivial blessings such as “May Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest!” should be silenced.

I was alarmed when I read this, since I often say Barukh Hashem! (Bless God!) when I notice something beautiful or wonderful; and when I lead Saturday morning services, I give ad-hoc blessings to the people who have come up for the honor of the Torah reading. Should I be silenced?

I think not, because I am not using the name of God that is given in the third commandment. There, the Hebrew word I translate above as “God” is the co-called Tetragrammaton, the sacred four-letter name composed of the same letters as the various three-letter forms of the Hebrew verb that means “be”, “become”, or “happen”.

I follow the Jewish custom of avoiding any attempt to write or pronounce that particular name of God. On the other hand, I freely use synonyms such as Hashem (“the Name”), the Holy One, or the English word God, and I transliterate the common god-names Adonai and Elohim as they are pronounced in Hebrew—practices that many orthodox Jews avoid.

Maybe I do not take God’s sacred name seriously enough. The second commandment forbids making images of things that other people consider gods; the third commandment forbids misusing God’s name. In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote, “Both image and name are aspects of identity, and man must take care lest he infringe on the sanctity of God in any manner.”

I can understand commitments between human beings that are so sacred they take top priority. I also consider some ethical imperatives sacred. But I find it harder to understand the sanctity of God—perhaps because I am always wondering what the word “God”, and the Tetragrammaton, actually refer to. There are so many different definitions of God, even within the Hebrew bible! So am I entitled to use the word “God” for a definition that means something important to me? Or am I limited to one of the more common definitions that other people assume?

I hope this prayer is not lashav, “for emptiness”:

May Hashem guide me to do this work that comes from my love of Torah, this work that means so much to me, without falseness or deception. And may we all discover our own inner truths, and find ways to live by them without hurting others.

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