Jealousy: natural emotion that Jews must control

Dear Rabbi,
You once explained the commandment to “not covet” as a path to control jealousy. You also said that you can’t be expected to not be jealous to begin with; the mitzvah gives guidelines to deal with that jealousy. However, if you are already jealous, have you transgressed the commandment? Also, how can jealousy, a normal human emotion, be forbidden?
Mel J.
Dear Mel,
One of the classical commentaries, R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, provides insight on this subject. He explains that we are only jealous of, or covet, something we believe could actually become ours. For example, when we see a friend, colleague or co-worker achieve financial success, we might be overcome by jealousy. When we observe, however, a king basking in the splendor of his riches, we don’t feel envious. Why this discrepancy?
The difference is clear. We recognize we are not kings. We were not born into royal families, and do not yearn for things that could not possibly become ours. We might, however, be envious of our neighbor, who we believe is no more capable than ourselves. “Lo Sachmod,’’ “Do not covet…,’’ teaches us a profound lesson regarding God’s involvement in our lives and livelihoods. The Almighty has provided each person with enough to meet his or her needs. What is appropriate for one is not necessarily fitting for another. What belongs to another is as much out of reach as if your friend was royalty.
I think this explanation is inherent within the verse itself. The commandment to not covet our friend’s ox and donkey is uttered in the same breath in which we may not covet his wife — “Lo Sachmod.” This is hinting to us that, just as my friend’s wife is completely off limits to me (that’s his royalty), so too the rest of his possessions are to be viewed as completely out of reach. Consequently, you will not covet those belongings.
This mitzvah doesn’t command us to quash our emotions. Rather, it gives us a direction in life, which enables us to control our emotions. Natural emotions have a place, otherwise they would not have been created within us. Our job, as Jews, is to control our emotions, utilizing them when appropriate, remaining above them when inappropriate. At times, you and I will be faced with the natural emotional challenge of jealousy. During those times, we need to regain control over that jealousy.
In general, prohibitions in the Torah apply only to actions, not emotions or feelings. Although the spirit of the law may be to control and properly direct our emotions, the letter of the law only applies to actions.
Additionally, Lo Sachmod is a related prohibition. When a person takes action and pressures an owner to give or sell the item he desires, he violates “do not covet.’’ Though the seller ultimately agrees to sell the item, if he was coerced or pressured into making the sale, Lo Sachmod has been violated.
The prohibition applies both when the buyer pressures the owner directly, or has other people apply the pressure on his behalf. Items for sale generally don’t fall into this category. Asking once or twice to purchase an item not for sale is also acceptable, without applying pressure.
Imagine a situation in which a developer requires a particular parcel of land to complete a development. If the owner indicates he is not interested in selling and the developer pressures him to sell, the developer has violated the prohibition of Lo Sachmod.
This is an example of a mitzvah, which is to ultimately refine our emotions and feelings but has concrete guidelines in Jewish law to make this mitzvah actionable.
Taking this a step further, to not covet is the ultimate purpose of all Ten Commandments. This we learn from the fact that it is the last of the commandments, and the sages have taught us that “sof maaseh b’machshava techila,” the last of actions manifests the original thought. Like the creation of man after all other creations, plague of the first born after all other plagues, the creation of the Jewish people after all other core nations. But why?
If one truly believes in “I am the Lord your God,” than one will trust in that God to provide his or her every need, and to be sure he/she has exactly what is deemed appropriate.
This is why the parallel of not coveting in the Ten Commandments is honoring one’s father and mother. As one trusts his or her loving and caring parents to anticipate and arrange specific needs, so, too, he or she extrapolates that trust to G-d. This commandment is, more than any other, relevant to our lives, day by day, hour by hour, situation by situation.
To conclude, I was always amazed by my father, ob’m, at the way he expressed joy at the financial successes of others, although he earned a modest income. My understanding was that my father, as a Holocaust survivor, maintained his joy by simply being alive and enjoying the simple pleasures he was blessed with. This enabled him to not covet what others had, and to fully join in the joy of others in their successes, a joy untainted by the desire of it coming to himself. This is a lesson we can all understand and learn from.

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