Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lost in Translation

Sometimes, Hebrew phrases aren't accurately translated. The picture above is an indication of this phenomenon. Inaccurate translations appear not only on road signs in Israel, but also in English versions of the Torah. One such example can be found in the third of the Ten Commandments. The common translation reads, "Do not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exodus 20:7). This is generally understood as a prohibition against using God's name for no reason or with an expletive. However, the verse continues, "for the Lord will not absolve" someone who commits this sin - something which is not mentioned for breaking any of the other commandments. Is using God's name in poor taste truly unforgivable, or is something being lost in translation?

Dennis Prager points out that the Hebrew ("Tisa") actually means, "Do not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain." In other words, we are not allowed to act inappropriately in God's name. This slight change in translation makes a big difference. While not taking God's name in vain can be derived from this commandment, it is not the essence of the prohibition. The clearest way of understanding this sin is through recent history. Although all terrorism is evil, terrorist acts committed in the name of God are particularly evil. This is why Islamic terrorism is so vile; they claim that God condones their behavior. Similarly, any Jew who does something false or evil in God's name has engaged in an unspeakable act.

One of the great burdens of being Jewish is that we are humanity's most direct representatives of God. As a result, our actions carry added weight. Whether we realize it or not, even the most mundane daily activity can turn into either a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name) or a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name). We must always keep this in mind due to the significance of this commandment. In addition to God's warning in the Torah, it states in Pirkei Avot, "...unintentional or intentional, both are alike regarding the desecration of God's name" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:5). In other words, making God look foolish under any circumstances is a serious offense.

Unfortunately, events in the news reveal that this commandment is violated all too often. The harassment of a girl in Beit Shemesh for not dressing "modestly enough" is just one example. The more religious or outwardly apparent a Jew is, the greater the responsibility they have to avoid desecrating God's name. Furthermore, anyone who thinks that Bein Adam Lamakom (the relationship between man and God) is separate from Bein Adam Lachaveiro (the relationship between man and other people) forgets a simple bit of logic. What does a parent care about more: how people treat them or how people treat their children? Every loving parent would answer with the latter. Wouldn't God have a similar response? The next time we think a fellow Jew isn't "religious enough," remember that Bein Adam Lachaveiro is also part of Bein Adam Lamakom.

As God's chosen people, it's no wonder that we are commanded to take extra care in how we carry His name. From something as simple as a transaction at a grocery store to something as difficult as dealing with ideological opponents, we aren't just representing ourselves. Despite the arduous nature of this commandment, we can view it as not simply a burden but also an opportunity. Just as desecrating God's name through bad behavior is among the worst sins a Jew can commit, sanctifying God's name through good behavior is among the greatest deeds a Jew can perform.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Therefore Was a Single Man Created"

"Therefore was a single man created, to teach us that whoever takes a single life it is as though he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single life it is as though he saved an entire world. It is also meant to foster peace between people, because no one can boast to his neighbor: 'My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.'"
- Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5

Human nature can be quite ugly. One of its worst manifestations occurs when we focus on all the petty differences between each other instead of real good and evil. All one has to do is observe the behavior of children to know this is true. Kids will often go out of their way to pick on the child who is overweight, clumsy or a poor student, and ridicule them to almost no end. Even among adults, subjectively deciding whether to treat certain individuals decently can become a trend that is hard to break. However, this problem can be corrected if the proper perspective is kept in mind.

As opposed to many ideologies throughout history, Judaism emphasizes the importance of the individual. As the Mishnah above indicates, this can be deduced from the fact that God began the creation of human beings with one man. Had Adam died, the entire world would have perished with him. Therefore, the Sages conclude that each human being - created in the image of God and descended from Adam - is as valuable as an entire world. Later in the same Mishnah, we are taught that every individual is also unique. As opposed to coins that are minted exactly the same, God makes every individual with distinct qualities. Thus, every individual is important and unlike anyone else who was ever created.

Unfortunately, non-moral reasons are still used by some as a rationale for treating people differently: rich and poor, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, black and white. People can fall under any of these categories and be good, or can fall under any of these categories and be bad. This is why class, racial and religious warfare is both morally wrong and dangerous. It takes factors into account that have nothing to do with good and evil. If some individuals were considered more or less valuable, there would be be different ethical codes for different people. Yet, this is not the case. Everyone is accountable for their own behavior, regardless of any "category" they happen to fall under.

This Mishnaic excerpt provides the quintessential response to anyone who claims that certain types of people are superior or inferior to others. Since all people descend from the same person, we are all related. There is no moral justification for dividing people based upon race or prominence or wealth. All of creation can be traced back to one God, and all of humanity can be traced back to one person. The very word for people in Hebrew is bnei adam (lit. children of Adam) - a subtle reminder that we all descend from one man, the first human ever created by God.

While primary importance is to be placed on how we treat fellow Jews (because goodness, like charity, should start at home), it should obviously extend to others with whom we come into contact. After all, Abraham - not Adam - was the first Jew, and yet the Sages remind us that all humanity descended from Adam. All people (unless actively pursuing harm against other people) are invaluable. Given the difficult times in which we live, heeding this simple Mishnaic teaching is as important as ever. It would spare us all a lot of trouble and pave the way toward the kind of world God truly desires.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

When Telling the Truth is Wrong

It is widely known that lying is a character trait we should avoid. As the Torah states, "distance yourself from falsehood" (Exodus 23:7). This might lead one to conclude that it's always permissible to say something that is true. However, are there times when telling the truth should also be avoided? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin poses this question - as well as a challenge:

Do you think you can go an entire day without speaking negatively of another person - even when what you're saying is true? Of course, this is easier said than done (no pun intended), but it's something that has the capacity to improve a person's character. If you happen to fail in avoiding unfair speech all of the time, it only proves that you're human. But if you're not even successful in avoiding unfair speech some of the time, it doesn't reflect well on your character.

The most important part of this whole idea is to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of our own conduct (i.e. follow the golden rule). Unless there is an objectively constructive purpose for saying something negative about another person, it is better left unsaid. A red flag should always be raised when we begin to rationalize as to why it's okay to speak ill of others. After all, rationalizing is nothing more than rational lies - and we are compelled to distance ourselves from such behavior.