At a first glance of the Ten Commandments, the average person would find most of them both logical and feasible. After all, who could disagree with rules such as “You shall not kill” and “You shall not steal”? The last commandment, however, might leave one a bit apprehensive: “You shall not covet the home of your fellow, nor his spouse or servants or animals, or anything that belongs to your fellow.” (Exodus 20:14)
Nowadays, servants and animals might not be the coveted items, but we can certainly relate to envying our neighbor’s new car or fancy china plates. Desire is a feeling that seems to come almost unbidden. It is an emotion that tends to overwhelm one’s entire being. An obvious question arises: how can God ask us to control a feeling? We think to ourselves, Of course, I would never steal my neighbor’s new crystal vase, but I can’t even secretly want it? How can we be expected to uphold this commandment?
Let us first define what the Torah identifies as “desire.” The Ten Commandments are listed in the Torah in two different places: once in the Book of Exodus and again in Deuteronomy. Interestingly, their wording is not identical. In Exodus, the tenth commandment reads, “You shall not covet” (lo tach’mod) while in Deuteronomy, it reads “You shall not desire” (lo tita’veh).
Jealousy is an impulsive, natural reaction. How can we avoid it?
This discrepancy clarifies the two parts of the commandment. Desire means wanting another’s possession and designing a mental plan for acquiring it for oneself. Coveting is defined as pursuing that plan of getting the desired item. Technically, this commandment does not prohibit the undeveloped general thoughts of craving someone else’s belongings. These thoughts, however, are the catalyst for one’s formulation and execution of a plan to acquire the item he wants.
Negative thinking that precedes desiring and coveting is nothing less than jealousy. The Talmud says that “jealousy, desire and honor remove a person from the world” (Avot 4:21). Jealousy is such a destructive emotion that often misleads us to act in despicable ways. If envy is the motivating point of origin that leads to desiring and coveting, then it needs to be uprooted altogether.
This seems to be a tall order for human beings; jealousy is an impulsive, natural reaction. How can we avoid it?
The Peasant’s Wife
The Torah’s guidelines enable us to become more Godly people, to break free of the emotional limitations of being physical creatures. But how do we free ourselves from jealousy? Sefer HaChinuch (416) presents this question regarding the Torah’s requirement to control our desires. Interestingly, he says that intelligent, honest people know that they are the masters of their emotions. In reality, however, the intensity of our desires makes us feel that these desires are often unmanageable.
If the Sefer HaChinuch considers it a basic assumption that emotions are controllable, why do we experience the opposite? What is the missing link here?
Let us examine the general nature of our desires. Is there a limit to that which arouses our jealousy? Consider the following parable: A simple peasant seeking a wife, due to his lowly status, has a small pool of potential candidates. Maybe he considers his neighbor’s daughter, or the peasant girl down the road. This simple man would never yearn to marry the royal princess. Even if she is the most beautiful and desirable woman, he still wouldn’t invest any emotional energy in longing for her. Why not? He doesn’t consider the princess to be a realistic option. Royalty doesn’t marry commoners like him. (see Ibn Ezra, Exodus 20:13)
Our mindset is comparable to that of this man in the parable. We only long for things that we perceive as within the scope of personal possibility. Recognize this human phenomenon: Our desires remain within the boundaries of our self-perception and, therefore, place limitations on jealousy.
We only long for things that we perceive as within the scope of personal possibility.
Our desires are determined by our view of ourselves and the world. If this is true, then we do have ultimate control over our desires. Emotions might seem too powerful to subdue, but we can alter our intellectual framework. We can direct our feelings by manipulating our perception of ourselves. By being realistic about our strengths and weaknesses, we can change our thoughts and desires.
Custom Tool Box
How can we gain an accurate self-perspective? Let us look to the first commandment about believing in God. Introductions and conclusions often have a common theme or connection. Such is the case with the first commandment (I am Your God) and last commandment (You shall not covet). Deep belief in God includes an awareness that He is the Source of all creation, providing each individual being with exactly what it needs physically and spiritually. Therefore, to desire or covet what others have is antithetical to the first commandment.
Everything in an individual’s possession is given to him in order to achieve his particular life purpose. Everyone has a God-given, custom-designed box of tools with which to do his particular job. Just as in practical life professions, for example, a chef has a box of kitchen utensils and a doctor has a box of medical supplies. Would a chef ever want a stethoscope? No, because it won’t help him bake a cake. Would a doctor ever dream about owning an eggbeater? No, because it won’t help him heal a patient’s wound.
God gives us certain inborn talents, life circumstances, and physical possessions with which to fulfill our role in life. If there is something we lack, we must not need it. It would be unnecessary, and even counter-productive for achieving our unique potential, to have anything more than God gave us.
Having this perspective is not only important to us as individuals; these values influence those around us, especially the next generation. If our actions focus on materialism, then our children hear the underlying message and adopt that value. However, if our deeds are spiritually-oriented, then others will be influenced by our example.
Someone once shared with me how she handles jealousy between her children. She compares possessions to an eyeglasses prescription. Prescriptions are customized to individual people. Would anyone ever insist that his eye doctor give him another person’s prescription? Of course not! We realize that wearing someone else’s glasses won’t help us see and often blurs our vision. Since another person’s glasses aren’t going to help us see, there is no sense in wanting them. If someone in the family expresses desire for another’s belongings, the parent tells him, “It’s his prescription.”
Emotional reactions to others’ material possessions send powerful messages to our children. When our neighbors go on an expensive vacation, do we wish aloud that we could, too? The woman who serves on beautiful china plates – do we think about her, “Why don’t I have plates like that?” We notice a new car in someone else’s driveway. “Wow! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I had one like that?” How do these responses affect other people, especially the young people who look at us as role models to emulate?
On a personal note, once an appraiser came to assess the monetary value of our property for insurance purposes. He took a small scale out of his bag and said: “Okay, let’s weigh your jewelry.” So, I handed him the few inexpensive pieces that I own. He looked a bit disappointed and asked, “Is that all you have?” I replied, “Well, we do have a lot of books.” He shook his head, “No, no. What about silver items?” I proceeded to show him a couple of menorahs. He asked, “What other silver things do you have?” I replied, “That’s all the silver, but we have a lot of books.” He frowned and asked, “Cameras?” We handed him our two cameras.
The exchange continued in this way. Whenever he asked for more, we would reply, “No, but we have a lot of books. Books are really important.” After a while, the appraiser was frustrated with us and decided to look around our apartment himself. At the end of his survey, he commented, “You know, you have a lot of books!” I said, “Right! Books! That is important to us!”
I hope that my children gleaned two lessons from the incident. The first message is that books are worth acquiring. What we fill our homes with speaks volumes (!) about our priorities. I also hope they heard the assessor point out that we didn’t own significant amounts of jewelry, silver or cameras. Our response was not a sigh or a frown, saying, “Wow – why don’t we have more of those things?” If we had reacted with a hint of disappointment, the strong value placed on materialism would have been subtly conveyed to our children. The people around us, especially our children, observe all that we do. Our actions and reactions influence their thoughts and subsequently their actions.
We all have the ability to control our desires. The jealousy that leads us to desire has no place in our lives, because we each have exactly what we need. God provides each individual with the necessary customized tools to complete his unique mission. By elevating our perspective, we preserve this tenth commandment and transform ourselves. We grow one step closer to reaching the spiritual potential that was given exclusively to human beings.
sources: Mishpatei HaShalom, Ta'am VaDa'as, Michtav Mei'Eliyahu
Excerpted from Torah Tapestries, taking you from the depths of Egyptian slavery to the completion of the Tabernacle in the desert, the book of Shemos (Exodus) encompasses many basic elements of the Jewish faith and practice. The meaningful messages offered here will speak to every individual who strives to grow spiritually. Purchase at: http://www.feldheim.com/torah-tapestries-shemos.html