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.

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