Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, Not In God’s Name, deals with the literal and figurative meaning of the commandment, “Do not take the Lord’s name on vain.” Using easy to read prose, he takes us on a journey back to the creation of man, starting with Adam and Eve, and leads us through the millennia until we arrive at the stage of humankind as it exists today.
He highlights the fact that at the dawn of our history, the “blame game” — or not taking responsibility for one’s actions — is clearly demonstrated. The first man, Adam, blames Eve for giving him the apple against God’s command, and Eve quickly shifts the blame to the serpent. The serpent blames no one; only humans play the blame game.
The story about the first two people born of woman, Cain and Abel, introduced to the world the first occurrence of sibling rivalry, which tragically ended in fratricide. To this day evolution has not dampened the human predisposition of sibling rivalry, a topic dealt with throughout Rabbi Sacks’ book. He draws from a wealth of rabbinic and psychological sources to explain the motivations behind such famous rivalries. As examples, Sacks cites the biblical stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and finally Joseph and his brothers.
Rabbi Sacks cites biblical narrative as a springboard from which to plumb the depths of the human psyche. He brings to light seemingly intractable problems we wrestle with today, which were recognized and recorded thousands of years ago. For example, when dealing with a person or group that has wronged you, he teaches us that we can let go and move on with our lives. The past cannot be undone, but the future offers unlimited possibilities and opportunities to right a wrong. It is our legacy not to deny or forget the past. We can live with the past, but not to live in the past. In Genesis when Jacob wrestled with an angel it was not too unlike the struggle we all have with our own sense of right and wrong. As did Jacob, we too must struggle with our conscience and we too are capable of prevailing. Though it may take a toll on us, we emerge all the better for it.
Another important theme introduced by Rabbi Sacks is that of responsibility. He quotes from Pirke Avot 2:21, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” He offers the example of Moses, who took the Jews out of Egypt, led them for 40 years through the desert, and brought them to the banks of the Jordan River within view of the Promised Land. But Moses, the greatest of prophets, accepted the fact that he was to never enter that covenantal land. As Rabbi Sacks so eloquently and succinctly explains to his readers, each of us has our River Jordan that we will not be able to cross. But like Moses, we too have the ability to guide and inspire those who will follow us and complete the journey.
The final sections of his book deal with relinquishing power and choosing life over death. He calls for tolerance as an antidote to the propensity to scapegoat others for one’s own shortcomings. He defines martyrdom as dying in the name of your religion, not by murdering in its name. The title of the book, “Not In God’s Name,” conveys to the reader that everything we do reflects on the source in whose image we were created. Therefore we are bound by our common humanity to reject words and deeds laced with hatred, bigotry, and intolerance. The power of words should be used in dialogue and debate, not in denigrating and disparaging those with whom we disagree.
I highly recommend “Not In God’s Name.” It provides insights into human behaviors, both noble and ignoble. Rabbi Sacks offers fresh and unique interpretations of the age old dilemmas, struggles, and challenges that face mankind. He draws heavily upon sources whose wisdom is reflected in the teachings of prophetic sages and modern philosophical visionaries. Read his book; it is a primer on how to live and love in ways we are capable of, and in God’s name.
The above article was originally published as “Looking to the Past for Lessons on How to Live Today” in “The Algemeiner.” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of England.