We read in this week’s Torah, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox or donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Ex. 20:14)
In this week’s portion, the Israelites gather at Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments will appear a second time in the Torah towards the beginning of Deuteronomy. The commandments form the moral basis of our Western ethical system. Nonetheless, the tenth commandment raises a difficult issue.
This commandment forbids any kind of envy of what our neighbor is or what our neighbor owns. We shall not covet our neighbor’s home, wife (or husband), servants, animals, or any possessions of our neighbor. One can understand a commandment that forbids certain actions. But how can the Torah forbid certain feelings? Aren’t inner feelings beyond our control?
If my neighbor drives up in a brand-new Lexus or Prius, and I look at my little Kia, is it not natural to feel a twinge of jealousy? If my family member books a month-long luxury cruise to Europe while I debate whether I can afford two nights at Atlantic City, is it not natural to feel envy? I am aware that our tradition teaches, “Who is rich? Whoever is happy with their portion” (Mishneh Pirkei Avot 4:1). It is a beautiful idea but is it possible to avoid that desire to covet? Can we control our emotions?
The Rabbis struggled with this issue. Some said that the commandment only deals with action, not inner feelings. I have only broken Jewish law when I sneak out in the middle of the night and steal that new Lexus (this is an idea; not a reality). But that is not what the commandment says. It speaks of the inner feeling, desire, wanting what our neighbor has. Can we control our feelings?
One answer is given by the great medieval commentator Ibn Ezra. He teaches that we will not covet things that are truly inaccessible to us. To quote him, “I will now give a parable. A peasant of sound mind who sees a beautiful princess ride by will not entertain any thoughts of desiring her. He knows that she is totally unavailable to him.” We are not tempted to covet or desire things totally unavailable to us. I am not sure I agree because even though the peasant may accept the limited possibility of a connection, it does not mean he cannot dream and hope a little.
Let me give a more contemporary example. None of us will feel jealousy towards the Kansas City Chief’s talented tight end Travis Kelce, catching passes from quarterback Patrick Mahomes in next week’s Super Bowl. And few of us will feel jealous that his mega-super star girlfriend Tayor Swift may fly back from her concert in Tokyo to Las Vegas to cheer him on in a private box. (Surprised that I follow such things. It is the most talked about event in the news.) The relationship of Kelce and Swift is beyond anything we can ever imagine for ourselves. It is like the peasant looking at the princess.
The danger of coveting or envy deals with issues closer, within our reach. Let me share a personal example. I play Microsoft Solitaire Collection online. Ever since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, I have worked diligently to master the different levels and complete each month’s puzzles. There are many anonymous opponents from around the world with greater ability – they see paths of connections that I miss, causing me to doubt my ability to complete the puzzles of the day. Am I a bit jealous of their solitaire abilities? Of course, I am human. But then I remind myself of the tenth commandment, do not be envious. Perhaps this is a reason to improve my game. I will never catch a football like Kelce or sing like Swift (everyone knows this!), but I can play better solitaire.
Perhaps that is the wisdom of the tenth commandment. Rather than coveting what my neighbor owns or being jealous of what my neighbor can do, how can I be motivated to do better for myself? Perhaps a touch of envy is an inspiration to make myself more successful. May this Shabbat be the beginning of the possibilities of many blessings for each of you that coveting will not be necessary.