Commandment #3: What makes an object holy?

Oh my Gosh. Have you ever heard a person say “Oh my Gosh,” instead of using the word “God”? Why do they do that? 

I’m going to tell you why. “Oh my Gosh” is what is called a “minced oath.” That’s when a name or aspect of God is referred to using a similar-sounding word as opposed to the actual word itself. 

Religious societies throughout history have used these “minced oaths” — like, in the middle ages they used to say “zounds” to refer to God’s wounds, which apparently was one of the more serious curses they used to use back then, or “golly” as a euphemism for God.

And while many of these minced oaths evolved in Christendom, the ultimate reason why they evolved seems to date way back to the Jewish bible. More specifically, to the third of the Ten Commandments: 

“You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve someone who takes His name in vain.”

But…I always had a hard time with this one. The Ten Commandments are The Big Ten, right? The commandments that, presumably, are at the very epicenter of what it means to live a full and meaningful life, as fundamental as it possibly gets.

Being careful to say “Oh my Gosh” so that you’re not taking God’s name in vain — is that so compelling? But…I think there’s more to it than that. Let’s dig a little deeper. 

A few months ago, I was in Toronto, and the internet went out. And I don’t mean that my own home wireless router conked out for a bit. 

I mean, the whole internet went out. One of the Canadian telecommunications giants had some sort of massive malfunction, apparently, and millions and millions of people were left without internet or cellular service for an entire day.

I, for one, was totally thrown out of sorts. I couldn’t check my email or access the cloud, so I couldn’t get any work done. At some point in the day I went down the street to a local Starbucks in hopes maybe they had some internet. They didn’t. In fact, their credit card system didn’t work because of the outage, so they were just giving out free cups of coffee. You see, there is a silver lining to every cloud..

Anyway, as I was sitting there in the coffee shop, I noticed a commotion in the corner. Two people were literally barking at each other. It seemed the fight was over a power outlet or something. (I’m not sure what they needed an outlet for since the internet was out, but whatever.) 

At that point, I looked around the coffee shop and I noticed something: it wasn’t just these two prickly patrons. Everyone seemed to be on edge. People were visibly annoyed. Rattled. And anxious. The whole scene had a creepy, tenuous vibe to it.

And I couldn’t help but think of a podcast episode I’d heard not too long before. In it, the two hosts were theorizing about what it would take to upend civilized society as we know it. And their contention was, it wouldn’t require a massive terrorist event or anything splashy like that.

All that would need to happen to upend civilized society was for the power to go out for, say, five days. Yes — cut off people’s power — so they can’t turn on their air conditioning, or their lights, or charge their devices. So that the streetlights didn’t work. And, save a miracle like Chanukah, see how quickly quote-unquote “civilized society” will deteriorate.

Because the truth is, “civilized society” isn’t a thing that exists in the world. It’s not a physical reality. You can’t point to something in the world and say, “That! That is civilized society!” No, civilized society is simply an idea, one that we all buy into, and that we sustain through our cooperation and agreement. 

Now, I’m not saying Canadian society was at risk of imploding on that day. But…I found it really easy to imagine how quickly it could all deteriorate with just a little bit of sustained pressure. I got a sense of how the things we take for granted as reality can, actually, be quite flimsy.

Maybe the best metaphor for this is the dollar bill. It used to be that a dollar was like a check that you could cash in for an actual amount of gold. But, in 1971 that was done away with, and since then, a dollar bill itself doesn’t have inherent value.

The value it has doesn’t exist in any objective way in the world. We human beings are the ones that imbue the dollar bill with its value. And we do that through our agreement that the bill is worth something. Again, it is us who give the dollar its value.

This is an idea that’s crucial not just for understanding economics. It’s an idea at the heart of spirituality itself. Many of us will know the famous instance of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai after speaking with God, only to find the Jewish people dancing around a golden calf. 

And when he sees this, Moses becomes totally enraged, and he throws those tablets to the ground, and smashes them to bits, and it’s a crazy and hectic scene.

But one question which comes up is — why did Moses have to throw those tablets? I mean, he clearly had good reason to be upset with the Jewish people. I get it. But throw the tablets? Aren’t those, like, very holy and stuff? Many Jews know not to put a prayer book, a siddur, on the floor, or even upside down on a shelf. So how was it okay to chuck the actual O.G. tablets on the ground and break them?

I saw an answer to this question that kind of blew me away. It came from someone named Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, who was a rabbi and prominent Jewish leader in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. 

And he says something that would sound a little radical if an illustrious rabbi-man wouldn’t have said it. He said that sacred objects are actually not, in fact, sacred…in and of themselves. In and of themselves…they are just…things:

In other words, what makes the tablets holy isn’t the stone they are made of or being infused with any objective holy substance. No — what made the stones holy was how we related to those stones. That’s why Moses could cast those holy tablets to the ground. The moment the Jewish people stopped treating the tablets as holy, the tablets lost their holiness. And, this is true of everything holy. 

Let’s now circle back on “Oh my Gosh” and the idea of taking God’s name in vain. The Third Commandment is about being super duper careful with God’s name. And, why, again, did this get into the Big Ten? Because doing so reminds us of an exciting and frightening realization: Things are only as holy as we make them. 

When it comes to the holiness of God’s name, perception is reality. If we are careless with God’s name — if we are casual about the very idea of sacredness — then we diminish sacredness in the world around us. 

But if, on the other hand, we are scrupulous and intentional about God’s name — if we take responsibility for sacredness in the world — then the possibilities are endless. 

We have the power to take an ordinary Friday night meal and — through saying Kiddush and singing songs and being with family and friends — turn it into a transcendent and sacred moment in time. 

We have the power to take an ordinary day job, and by focusing on helping others through our work, and earning money, honestly, in order to give back to our families and communities, turn the routine of collecting a paycheck into a higher, sacred calling.

As Rabbi Meir Simcha so beautifully said — there aren’t holy things in the world. We are what make them holy. It feels weird to quote Spiderman right now, but I’m gonna go ahead and do it: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And the question is, are we up to it? Well, golly, I certainly hope so.

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