I spend a lot of time with preteens, young people about to celebrate their becoming b’nei mitzvah. I marvel at their ability to spend hours looking through all kinds of catalogs, imagining some of the gifts they’d like to get: clothes, jewelry, computer games, and other technological innovations that I can’t even imagine, much less use. They want this stuff, they wish they had it, and they hope they’ll get it.
Grown-ups want stuff too. We visit the beautifully decorated home of a new friend and wish for a moment that we could live there. Or we sit in a new car and wish it were ours. It’s so normal to want things we don’t have. And yet, in this week’s Torah portion, we return to Mount Sinai and hear again the Ten Utterances.
How powerful it must have been to witness the awesome presence of YHVH, to actually stand at Sinai and hear Aseret HaDib’rot. Our tradition tells us that these Ten Utterances (not commandments, because “I the Eternal am your God” is not exactly a commandment) are the foundation of the moral universe. If we don’t uphold them, the world will begin to disintegrate.
We all know people whose lives have been devastated by adultery; whose resources have been wiped out by stealing; whose hearts have been broken by adult children not honoring their elderly parents. We know what happens to a society where language has been cheapened, where people lie in courts of law. We even know what happens to our souls when we don’t take the time to care for our inner lives, when we don’t set aside a time for a Shabbat of our souls.
All of these commandments make so much sense, except perhaps, the last: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife . . . nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:14). In our experience this could be translated as: “You shall not visit a friend’s home and wish it were yours, or covet his new SUV.”
Covet: “to feel inordinate desire for what belongs to another” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11 ed., [Springfield, Massachusetts, 2003]). The tenth commandment, this utterance, appears to be different from the others. Murder, stealing, and adultery are actions, but coveting is just a feeling. Is it really so bad just to want something that we don’t have?
The tradition struggled with this question. One view is that coveting is actually an action. “The commandment here reads ‘You shall not covet,’ but the text in Deuteronomy (5:18) reads ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife . . . nor shall you crave [lo titaveh] your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slaves, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’ The purpose is to make craving a separate offense, and coveting a separate offense. For if a person craves, he will end up by coveting . . . Craving is in the heart . . . while coveting is an actual deed” (M’chilta de Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, ed. Hoffmann, p. 112).
A later commentator explains even more clearly: “The meaning of ‘covet’ is to attempt to attain something from one’s neighbor, for example, to offer him money to divorce his wife so that he can marry her, or to sell him his slave or his ox or his ass . . . This is a very evil characteristic, to attempt to take away one’s neighbor’s possessions. We know that coveting is not just in one’s heart, but that it entails some action from what is said in the Torah ‘You shall not covet . . . and take it for yourselves’ (Deuteronomy 7:25). . . . Hence, we infer that one does not violate the prohibition if one does not actually do something in order to obtain the coveted object” (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, France 1288–1344). Maimonides too sees coveting as an action (see Sefer HaMitzvot, Prohibitions 265, 266).
But other commentaries, including Ibn Ezra and Radak, see coveting as a feeling, not an action (see Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Exodus) [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1976], pp. 343, 346). Tz’enah Ur’enah offers this example: “Do not envy your friend’s prosperity. This is a sin of the heart, and a very grave one.” It goes on to mention exceptions: “If you see your friend learning Torah, doing good deeds, and causing others to study Torah, it is permissible to envy him his accomplishments in order to be spurred on to similar deeds. It is also permitted to covet a friend’s daughter as a wife for one’s son” (Tz’enah Ur’enah, Yitro).
No matter which interpretation is most convincing, it is still surprising to read in P’sikta Rabbati: “to violate the tenth commandment is tantamount to violating all ten” (P’sikta Rabbati, Palestinian, 6–7 c.e.). What makes coveting so dangerous?
One obvious answer is that coveting leads to violating the other commandments. First you want, then you steal and perhaps lie—and even kill—to get what you want. And even that first utterance in Exodus 26:1—“I am the Eternal you God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” is jeopardized. According to Me-Am Lo’ez: “A person should contemplate somberly and reason with himself: ‘God is the master of my fate, not I. If I deserve to own something, surely God will not withhold it from me. But if something is not destined to be mine, then all of my pains and efforts to acquire it will come to naught. So it is futile to pursue it.’ ”
I find this problematic. Does this suggest that we shouldn’t aspire to achieve more; that wherever we are in our education or our professional lives is where we are meant to remain? What is the role of wanting more in motivating hard work and eventual success, or as the Tz’enah Ur’enah suggests, in wanting more Torah study or a soul mate for your child?
Perhaps there is a difference between wanting things outside ourselves and wanting achievements based on our own hard work or talent. But even there, the danger of coveting is that it can cloud our vision as to what really matters. Why do we want more achievement than we already have? Are we motivated by envy of others or by a genuine desire to serve others? What and how much do we actually need in order to be happy? When can we say “dayeinu, it is enough for us, we have enough” about our lives and our things?
Coveting only occurs when we compare ourselves with other people. It can lead to resentment, anger, jealousy, and judgment—attitudes that constrict our lives and keep us from being free. The tenth commandment raises the question that Pirkei Avot does: "Who is rich?" and challenges us to be able to answer truthfully: “I am, because I am grateful for what I have” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1).
Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.