"Who Do You Covet?"
In today’s Torah reading Moses reviews with the Jewish people about to enter the Promised Land the 10 Commandments given to them at Mt. Sinai 40 years earlier. I’m not going to review all of the 10 Commandments but I’d like to ask: Which of the 10 is the most difficult to observe?
Is it the 4th commandment, the one that commands us to observe Shabbat? Not really. In our time most people work only 5 days a week and so we are free to observe Shabbat if we want to.
How about the 5th commandment, the one that commands us to honor our parents? It’s not so hard. Most of us feel an innate desire to be grateful to those who gave us life and raised us and taught us.
Could it be the 6th, the one that forbids us to commit murder? I must tell you without boasting that I very seldom feel the urge to commit murder, and that, when I do, I’m usually able to keep the urge under control.
If one watches much TV these days one might think it would be the 7th: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” It reminds me of the time I asked the children in our religious school if they could name any of the 10 Commandments and one little boy raised his hand and said, “Thou shalt not admit adultery!”
From my perspective, without a doubt, the most difficult of all the 10 Commandments to observe is the 10th: Lo tachmod, “Thou shalt not covet.” I understand that Gd can command us what to do or what not to do—to shake a lulav or not to steal. But how can Gd command us what to feel? And who can control the almost irresistible desire to have what someone else has? Who can control the feeling of envy that sometimes wells up within us when we see someone else’s car, someone else’s house, someone else’s job and even someone else’s spouse?
How can you not covet? Is it within the power of human beings not to crave that which someone else has? Is this not a commandment that is beyond our strength to observe? Many of the commentators on the Torah have wrestled with this question down through the centuries. And so, what I want to do today is share with you 3 unique approaches taught to me by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.
1st, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra writes: Many have expressed amazement over this command, which is so different from the other 9. “You shall not steal,” “You shall not murder,”—these are things which are within a person’s power and which depend upon his will. If he does not want to steal, he does not steal. If he does not want to murder, he does not murder, etc. But “You shall not covet?” How can a person not covet something which is lovely for the eyes to see? Behold, he is helpless to control the feeling of wanting it. Indeed it is human nature. The answer is that a person only covets those things which he has hopes of somehow being able to acquire.
To what may this be compared? To a farmer who sees a beautiful princess. He does not covet her for he knows that this is impossible. There is no way that he can ever possibly acquire her. And therefore, from the beginning, the possibility does not even occur to him to covet her. And so the man does not think of marrying her or lying with her because, even though she is beautiful, he has been accustomed from his youth to know that she is unobtainable by him.
And so it is with this commandment. Its intention is to plant in a person’s heart the prohibition against coveting anything which is not his is to know that for him it is unattainable, and therefore he will not desire nor covet.
The Ibn Ezra is saying that if you observe the 1st 9 commandments—that if you recognize the authority of Gd over your life—that you will come to understand that someone else’s property is theirs, not yours, and that since you cannot legally acquire it, you should not emotionally desire it. Just as a farmer does not feel cheated that he cannot have the princess, so you should feel that you are not deprived if you cannot have what does not belong to you. Coveting is pointless if what you envy can never be yours anyway.
You must admit that this is an interesting approach and does have mush merit. But is it really true that you can never hope of acquiring something that your neighbor has? Why can’t you work hard and earn enough so that you can buy it from him? Why can’t the fact that he possesses something that you would like to have lead to ambition, and not just to envy?
Now let’s look at the commentary of Reb Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov—a Chassidic master and one of the early followers of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut. He asks: How is it possible to command a person about matters of the heart and not just of the hand? It is because the last of the 10 Commandments is not really a command. “You shall not covet” is actually an assurance, a promise—but not a command. Gd gives us the promise of a reward. “If you merit and fulfill the preceding 9 commandments, I promise you that as a result you will not covet. Your heart will be so complete and so happy with what is yours, with what you have acquired for yourself fairly and righteously, that you will not crave that which is not yours.
Isn’t this a brilliant approach? Reb Yechiel Michel teaches us to read the 10th Commandment, not as a command, but as a reward. If you live right, if you follow the 1st 9 commandments, the result is that you will live a contented life and you will not brood over what you don’t have. I like this approach because it solves the problem of how can Gd command a feeling. It teaches us that if we live right, we’ll be rewarded with not suffering from this feeling.
If, for example, we keep the Shabbat, we will have one day every week in which all the differences between the haves and the have-nots disappear. When you come to shule—especially our shule—it makes no difference how much you have or don’t have. All of us have the same time, even if we don’t have the same things. And if we learn how to celebrate and appreciate time, then we will not feel frustrated or envious over what someone else has.
The 3rd approach is found in Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg’s commentary, Haketav v’Hakabala: Many are surprised and puzzled by this commandment. For how is it possible for a person not to covet a beautiful thing in his heart? Does not the heart covet by itself, even against a person’s desire? The answer seems to be as the author of the Sefer Habrit wrote concerning the verse: “You shall love the Lrd your Gd with ALL your heart…[also in our parsha]” If it had been written “You shall love the Lrd your Gd with your heart,” would that not have been sufficient? What could the purpose have been of adding the words “with all?
The answer is that the point of the text is to teach us that your heart should be filled with the love of Gd. In other words, there should be no room for the love of anything else in your heart. If your heart is filled with the love of Gd, it is impossible that it would covet anything else. Just as a full cup is unable to take in anything more, so a heart full of the love of Gd cannot take in love of any object.
Do you understand what Rabbi Mecklenberg and the Sefer Habrit are saying? If you are really full of the love of Gd, then how can you also have room in your heart for love of other things? Yes we love other human beings, but they are an image of Gd an part of the love of Gd. But why worry and obsess about trinkets that are of little value compared to the love of Gd? Let your neighbor have his baubles when you have what is infinitely more precious?
The deeper understanding is that Gd gives us precisely what we need in this world to develop our souls. If we are challenged to be wealthy—and I admit I would welcome that challenge—bring it on. Yes it is a challenge to be wealthy and properly distribute the largess Gd blesses you with. You can misuse your wealth and really mess up your life. And if we are challenged to struggle with earning a living—so be it. We need to learn to be grateful and bless Gd for all the good we have in our lives: Gd’s precious Torah, family, friends, food, wine, water, the land of Israel, the beach, the Grand Canyon—you fill in the blanks.
So here are 3 approaches to the 10th Commandment. The Ibn Ezra understands it as a moral teaching: How can you desire that which is not yours any more than a farmer can desire the princess who cannot be his? Reb Yechiel Michel understands this as a reward—not a commandment. If you really live right, if you really keep the 1st 9 commandments, you’ll be spared from the cravings that can otherwise consume your soul and warp your life. And the 3rd, Rabbi Mecklenberg and the Sefer Habrit, understand this as a religious teaching: that if you are truly blessed with the love of Gd, you will have no room in your heart for the desire to obtain possessions that are of no value compared to the love of Gd. You will ultimately come to understand that what Gd blesses you with is for the best.
I love all 3 approaches and have learned much from them, but I confess that my favorite is Reb Yechiel Michel who says that, Lo tachmod, “Do not covet,” is a reward—not a command, because if you keep the Torah, it will spare you from the addiction to things, and from the envy of others, that may otherwise take hold of you and warp you.
The Talmud, on the other hand, teaches us that coveting—being jealous—can be a good thing. Yes, be careful not to be jealous of your neighbor’s possessions or your neighbor’s wife. But you can be jealous of another’s learning and another’s ambition so that you will strive to grow in learning and make more of yourself. You can be jealous of another’s Tzedakah (charity) and be inspired to give more yourself. And you can be jealous of another’s chessed, how someone else is so kind and giving to others and be moved to greater heights of doing acts of chessed yourself.
May Hashem protect us from violating the 10th Commandment—the one that is the hardest to keep. And may we be inspired, thereby, to fulfill our Gd-given potential as we ask ourselves, “Who should we covet?” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis