Dear Rabbi Fried,
In last week’s Torah reading of the Ten Commandments, I had trouble understanding the 10th commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.’’ It seems to be an injunction forbidding jealousy. How can jealousy, a normal human emotion, be forbidden?
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 that we believe could actually become ours. For example, when we see a friend, colleague or co-worker achieve a heightened level of financial success, we may be overcome by jealousy. However, when we observe a king basking in the splendor of his riches, we don’t feel envious. Why this discrepancy?
The difference is clear. We recognize that we are not kings. We were not born into royal families and do not yearn for things we know could not possibly become ours. We might, however, be envious of our neighbor, who we believe is no more capable than ourselves.
“Lo sachmod,’’ or “do not covet,’’ teaches us a profound lesson in God’s involvement in our lives and livelihoods. The Almighty has provided each person with 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 were 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 that we may not covet his wife. 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. It rather 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. All of us will inevitably be faced with the natural emotional challenge of jealousy. At that time, we need to focus on the above lesson, and we can regain our control.
Taking this a step further, the mitzvah to not covet is the ultimate purpose of all of the Ten Commandments. We learn this 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. Similarly,the creation of man came after all other creations, plague of the first born after all other plagues, the creation of the Jewish people after all other core nations. Why would this be so?
The answer is, if one truly believes in “I am the Lord your God,” then one will trust in God to provide for their every need and be sure that what they have is exactly what their Father in heaven deems appropriate for them.
This is why the parallel of not coveting in the Ten Commandments is honoring one’s father and mother. Like one trusts their loving and caring parents to anticipate and arrange their needs, so too, one learns to extrapolate that trust to God.
This commandment is, more than any other, relevant to our lives, day by day, hour by hour, situation by situation.
I was always amazed by my father, ob’m, and the way he expressed joy at the financial successes of others, although he only made 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 only not covet what others had, but even to fully join in the joy of others in their successes, a joy untainted by the desire of it coming to himself.
Dear Rabbi Fried,