What makes the Ten Commandments so special, so important, that so many people insist on placing monuments depicting them in public places or on courtroom walls? Why are the Ten Commandments seen as such a cornerstone to Judeo-Christian legal principles?
And for Jews, are the Ten Commandments that much more important than any of the other six hundred and three commandments? Or do we only consider them more important because God spoke them to the entire Israelite nation?
While I would agree that their importance stems from our collective experience of receiving them at Mount Sinai, I would also like to offer another reason. And that is that the ten commandments are important and memorable because of their relative simplicity.
"I am the Lord Your God who brought you out of Egypt. Remember the Sabbath. Honor your father and mother. Do not kill. Do not steal."
But there is one commandment out of these ten which I don't believe fits this bill. I don't believe it is quite as straightforward as it otherwise may seem.
Take a look at the Third Commandment. In English it's usually translated as “you shall not take God’s name in vain.” But what does that actually mean? What does it mean to not “take” God’s name? And what does it mean “in vain?”
I want to offer this definition because I believe it has so much more meaning in today's world than merely taking God's name in vain.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote the following in his book Jewish Literacy.
“Many people think that this means that you have to write God as G-d, or that it is blasphemous to say words such as goddamn. Even if these assumptions are correct, it's still hard to figure out what makes this offense so heinous that it’s included in the document that forbids murdering, stealing, idolatry, and adultery. However, the Hebrew, Lo Tisa, literally means “you shall not carry God’s name in vain.”
In other words, don’t use God as your justification in selfish causes.
According to Telushkin, the prohibition is not in merely using God’s name. The prohibition is the actions you take in the name of God.
Let me see if I can drive this point home more clearly.
We are not permitted to justify illegal or evil acts by saying that they mandated by God. We can never use God as an excuse or justification to do evil, to otherwise violate the laws of civilization and the laws of the Torah.
Think about the world we live in. Think about the religious fanatics, fanatics and zealots of all religions - Jews, Christians and Muslims - who kill innocent people and commit other horrendous acts, all in the name of God.
I believe that the third commandment warns against that. It warns us in no uncertain terms that we cannot go around defending our lawless actions by constantly claiming that they have God's seal of approval. It warns us that we cannot use the Ten Commandments, or the Torah, or God, as a sword, as a way of coercing others that our understanding of God is the true and correct one. It tells us in no uncertain terms that being "holier than thou" is not acceptable.
Remember Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas abortion doctor who was murdered? His killer's defense was based on fulfilling God's directive to save unborn children. That is taking God's name in vain. That is a violation the third commandment
Let God punish those who He believes takes his name in vain. But we should never take the law into our own hands and then use God as our justification for doing so.
At the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington the other day Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the following, which is certainly apropos to my message here this morning.
"All religions have their version of the Golden Rule and direct us to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger.... Yet across the world, we see organized religion standing in the way of faith, perverting love, undermining that message...
Religion, cloaked in naked power lust, is used to justify horrific violence, attacks on homes, markets, schools, volleyball games, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples.... Religion is used to enshrine in law intolerance of free expression and peaceful protest. Iran is now detaining and executing people under a new crime – waging war against God."
That is why we must remain committed and proactive in speaking up about the perversion of religion, and in particularly the use of it to promote and justify terrorism.
I want to share with you a positive way to look at this otherwise ambiguous third commandment.
In response to the Haitian earthquake, President Obama said, "We unite, recognizing that there but for the grace of God go I, recognizing that life's most sacred responsibility -- one affirmed, by all of the world's great religions -- is to sacrifice something of ourselves for a person in need."
In other words, we can interpret the third commandment not merely as a prohibition on taking God's name in vain, or sitting around and waiting for God to help, but as an affirmative obligation to do good for others in God's name, on using God's name only when we do good and not evil for others, and by giving God credit for our doing good in this world.
To sum it all up, we should only use God's name to promote righteousness and justice and love and peace. And we must never use God to justify any illegal or unjust actions. In Judaism we have a name for this. It's called Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God's name. May we continue to lead our lives with this commandment always as our guide.