While this week’s parsha contains a plethora of ideas and issues to discuss, there can be no doubt that the “highlight” of the parsha is the Asseret HaDibrot. A cursory glance at the Dibrot reveals that only three of the mitzvot contained therein are assigned specific “schar va’onesh”, reward or punishment, for successful performance (as in the case of Kibud Av vEm) or for transgression (Idol worship and swearing in vain using God’s name). This immediately suggests a connection between swearing falsely and Avoda Zara. This week we will look at the prohibition of swearing falsely in God’s name and perhaps reach an understanding that will enable us to understand the link a bit more clearly.
The Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on this passuk, notes that God’s name is indicative of absolute truth. Hence, a person who swears in God’s name is invoking absolute truth in staking his position. Subsequent failure to fulfill one’s word is tantamount to denying the absolute truth that one first invoked when making the oath. This explains the severity with which swearing falsely in God’s name is viewed. For all practical purposes, one is denying God.
The Ibn Ezra further explains that it is necessary to describe the punishment for this particular sin because it is so easy to downplay the severity of the sin. After all, what has one done? What is the value of a few words, which, once spoken, are quickly forgotten?
The truth, however, is exactly the opposite. Other sins, given the fact that they have a specific goal, are more easily controlled. If one steals, for example, he will presumably limit his larceny to opportunities where he will get something he wants, and where the chances of being caught are slim. Not so invoking God’s name in vain. By allowing himself to become used to doing so, a person’s senses will be dulled to the severity of the sin, eventually reaching a point where he doesn’t even realize that he has used God’s name.
It is interesting to note that through this explanation the Ibn Ezra in fact rejects the equation we suggested between Avoda Zara and swearing falsely in God’s name. He also limits the infraction to swearing in God’s name, suggesting a narrow reading of the word “tisah” which, as we will see, is not universally accepted.
While the Ibn Ezra does not tie the issur of lo tisah into Avoda Zara, the Ralbag does. Using a similar formula, namely that falsely invoking God’s name implies that he is rejecting the absolute truth that God represents, the Ralbag suggests that this is the exact definition of Avoda Zara. When a person fulfills the oath he has taken in God’s name, he is testifying to the truth that that name represents. Conversely, when he fails to keep his word, he is denying that truth, and in the opinion of the Ralbag, is sinning even more grievously than an idol worshipper. For after all, he is specifically rejecting God, as opposed to accepting the existence of another.
The Abarbanel, in contrast to the Ibn Ezra, sees the prohibition as applying to a whole range of utterances whereby a person might invoke God’s name. By the constant debasement of God’s name through its overuse, a person shows the lack of value that he attributes to the concept behind the name. This leads the Abarbanel to a novel understanding of the link between Avoda Zara and using God’s name in vain. The two reflect two poles that a person must avoid. On the one hand, a search for spirituality might lead a person into acknowledging multiple deities. The rejection of spirituality, on the other hand, might lead a person to conclude that there is no deity at all, causing him to debase God entirely by invoking His name at all times and in all contexts, demonstrating his lack of belief.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch combines the two meaning of “tisa” (oath vs. multiple uses) by pointing out that the oaths that we speak of here are not necessarily false oaths but useless or superfluous oaths. The fact that one uses God’s name in a superfluous manner is essentially using God’s name in fashion where it has no effect. This is in and of itself a desecration, as oaths in general reflect our submitting ourselves to God’s rule. What we are in fact doing is acknowledging that failure to fulfill our word is punishable on the highest level, by God Himself. By failing to keep our word, we are mechallel HaShem in the most profound sense. Though Rav Hirsch does not say it, this represents an act of Avoda Zara. Because what is idol worship if not the denial of God in favor of other gods?
The Shadal (Rav Shmuel David Luzatto, 19th century Italy), suggests a different take on the Chillul HaShem aspect of Lo Tisah. According to the Shadal, a person swears in God’s name in order to have his word believed. By falsely swearing he is using God as a device to avoid punishment. Hence, the punishment that the Tora promises, Lo Yinake, is particularly appropriate. A person might feel that he has “gotten away” (yinake) with something, but in fact the ultimate punishment is Lo Yinake, a far more severe and lasting punishment from God.
If we return to the Ibn Ezra, we see that a major danger is the danger of routine. Other sins have a natural brake on them, slowing the rush to turn an unsavory trait into part of a person’s personality. The Gemara states that a person who repeats a sin three times begins to relate to the sin as something which is permissible. The routine dulls a person’s sense of propriety, and he loses the perspective that reminds him that his actions are improper. This is the danger of routine. When the Ibn Ezra warns of the dangers of Lo Tisa he writes that for this sin alone it is understandable that the galut would be extended. Why? Because of the acceptance of sin as routine and unimportant. When we abdicate our responsibilities in favor of “the status quo”, the way we and all around us behave, without subjecting our behavior to critical analysis, we are surrendering to routine. Nothing is more dangerous to our spiritual selves. The mission then, is to rise above the routine, and to return to ourselves.