Vaet’hanan and the Lord’s Name

In the Torah portion Vaet’hanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), we read the Ten Commandments, one of them being, “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD you God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.” (5:11, Jewish Publication Society edition)

This has been translated into “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain,” which has often been a fancy phrase meaning, “No, swearing or cursing,” traditionally meaning “No talking dirty.” So what DOES that mean?

In earlier ages, swearing meant any outburst speaking of God or the Saints, such as for example, “By Saint Peter’s foot!” or “By God’s right hand!” like that. In later centuries, it grew to mean anything related to sex or sex organs; in Victorian times, the simple word “leg” was shocking.

I think that “not using the LORD’s name in vain” actually means “don’t use God’s name as a reason to oppress or rob vulnerable people.” Many times in history, powerful elites have used the Almighty as an excuse for their oppression of others: the theology of John Calvin, which said some people were destined for Heaven and some others for Hell, and their prosperity on Earth would decide where they would go; the pre-Civil War-South, where the southern churches developed an entire theology around White supremacy and the enslavement of African-Americans; Henry Ward Beecher, the great abolitionist preacher, who, during the reign of the corporate “robber barons” of the late 19th Century, preached that God had decided it would be so (;  the religious right movement, which used their idea of “Christianity” to oppress LGBTQ people just trying to live their lives, and women who want to control their own bodies; to the TV evangelists who beg money from their followers to add to their already millionaire lifestyles.

You want bad words? How about those racial insult words that good “Christian” people bandied about, adding to their contempt for those “inferior” people? Or terms of verbal abuse thrown at helpless people, which do as much damage to their psyches as a fist does to their bodies? Words DO have power, and people HAVE been damaged emotionally by such words-you know which ones I mean, because I don’t want to use them.

To me, calling the sexually-oriented “Bad words”-fuck shit ass cock, you know the rest-comes from the traditional sex-phobia that came out of the Victorian era, where descent people didn’t discuss something everyone was doing anyway. Words, and how they’re defined, are powerful; they can be used to tear people down, or raise them up; they’re not just noises out of your mouths, and that ain’t no bullshit.

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Vaet’hanan Part One

Recently we studied the Torah portion Vaet’hanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Moses urges the Israelites, before going into the Promised Land, to follow the Commandments of God faithfully, and to pass the Teachings on to future generations (4:5:14). Moses further instructs them to never make any sculpted image to worship as gods, be it a man, woman, or any other creature, or of the Sun, Moon, or planets (4:15-20).

Moses adds that, should the Israelites act wickedly and does worship human-made idols, God would scatter them from the Land and among the nations of the earth; but if they repent of their sins and errors, and turn back to God, God would welcome them back (4:25-31).

In chapter five, Moses proclaims the Laws of God, known as the Ten Commandments. Again, there is the injunction to never make any sculpted image, of any being on earth on in the Heavens, for worship (5:8-10).

In chapter six we read the Shema, the great declaration of our faith: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” (6:4). This is followed by the Ve’ahavta, the injunction to love God with your entire mind, body, and soul, and to abide by the Commandments all through the day,  and to inscribe the Laws of God on our doorposts and on our gates (6:4-9). All of us are to learn the Teachings, laity as well as clergy; the Teachings belong to all of us, and not to be monopolized by a priestly class. (All quotes from the Jewish Publication Society edition of the Torah.)

The Haftorah is Isaiah, 40:1-26. Isaiah tries to explain the greatness of God; Isaiah speaks of God’s greatness and glory, which cannot be measured and is therefore beyond limitation. Again, again, Isaiah attacks the idea of worshiping human-made images to worship-an idol. An idol is a human construction of God a human, therefore limited idea of what God is. People, based on their own human understanding, create idols, of ideas or of stone, to try to understand God, but God is beyond all comprehension.

The Israelites came out of Egypt, called in Hebrew Mitzra’im, the narrow place, the place of limited possibilities. Their gods were sculpted images for worship, static, not evolving, whereas YHVH has no physical form in space or time, and so is beyond limitation. An idol doesn’t need to be a deity; it could be like a hunt for money, fame, power, or some other perceived goal. Plus, an idol is a physical representation of a deity, conceived by human thought and construction, a sculptor’s idea of a deity, a human idea of God, which can be shaped by the cultural ideas of the nation or the interests of rulers.

Idol worship can also mean being in a low spiritual state, of possessing negative traits, and you don’t know of any alternative, you’re in a “narrow place” of limitations. A higher spiritual state of awareness removes such limiting ideas, and God is unlimited. The Shema, the great declaration of our faith, says the LORD is one, undivided, and so all thins and beings are a part of God.

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