Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Parsha Yitro: What Does the Commandment of "Do Not Covet" Mean, and Why Bother Having It?

Reading the Ten Commandments is interesting because they have greatly influenced ethical living, particularly in the Western world. Additionally, I am intrigued by the structure of the text (Exodus 20). The First Commandment of "know there is one G-d" (Exodus 20:2) can trip someone up because it's not in the imperative form. That might be because the Hebrew for what is commonly called "the Ten Commandments" is עשרת הדברים, or the "Ten Sayings" or the "Ten Matters," i.e., the ten dicta act as headers. Once you get past the First Commandment, the rest are relatively easy to comprehend (although the Third Commandment of "don't take G-d's name in vain" bewildered me a bit last year), that is until the Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:13), which tells us not to covet (לא תחמד).

At least in English, the word "covet" means to earnestly want or desire something. I question whether the translation of the word חמד is an accurate one. Based on the "common understanding" of the word, "covet" seems to be an accurate translation. If this is correct, then G-d is commanding us not to feel a certain emotion. If this is the case, then I have to start wondering. Much like with love or joy, how can one command or legislate an emotion or a lack thereof? Actions are much easier to self-regulate than emotions, and from my understanding of Jewish law, G-d judges us on our actions, not our emotions. People can have ridiculous, far-fetched, or morally problematic thoughts. Just because a thought or emotion pops us does not automatically mean that we act on it. That being the case, how do we resolve the text with the reality of human nature?

Yechiel Michael of Zolochev, who was a student of the Baal Shem Tov, said that if you live by the first nine commandments, you will not have a reason to be envious of what others have. Most of the עשרת הדברים consists of negative imperative statements. Yechiel Michael's words might be a nice, little sound byte or 15-second d'var Torah, but it does not actively deal with the issue of envy.

When one covets, it is not about a general proclivity towards material consumption, although that is problematic. The commandment of לא תחמד deals with a fixation on a specific object or person. I have to ask myself whether חמד is an active or passive verb. In Exodus 34:24, the verb is arguably active. In Deuteronomy 7:25, Joshua 7:21, and Micah 2:2, it is a bit more passive. In these passages, the coveting takes place before the morally reprehensible actions do.

Coveting is the process of developing and inculcating envy. Coveting exceeds mere desire because the intensified envy leads to the scheming of acquiring the desired object (Mechilta). By developing this envy, one attempts to justify the wrong they are about to commit, whether that is theft, adultery, murder, or some other heinous act (Maimonides, Hilchot Gzaila v'avaida 1:9, 10). Coveting is arguably the root cause of evil acts.

Similar to the commandment of Shabbat and the need for rest, the commandment of not coveting is more relevant than ever. We live in a world in which the pursuit of material wealth has superseded most, if not all, other values and goals. This is not to say that material consumption is bad (because it's not). What is troublesome is treating it as an end goal, and not a means to an end, e.g., living a more spiritual life.  

Coveting is a stepping stone to committing wrong. Since it is an active process, we can take measures to prevent coveting from being actualized. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra realized that we need to discipline and condition the mind so that our actions do not get out of hand. To not covet means to actively work on changing one's perspective so that coveting does not occur. What's the single greatest antidote to coveting and jealousy? Gratitude. If we emphasize and appreciate the good we have in our lives, it detracts from being jealous of others. There is also the notion that the world does not revolve around oneself. There are other people in this world, and they are created in His Image. Realizing that makes it much easier to respect other people, their property, and their relationships with others. Once we take actions to stop giving attention to the evil eye, we can develop lives that respect the dignity of others while respecting ourselves and our own self-worth.

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