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Can We Sin in Our Hearts and Not with Our Hands?

  • Can We Sin in Our Hearts and Not with Our Hands?

    Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
D'var Torah By: 

In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the Ten Commandments appear in their most recognizable form. Among the differences between the two occurrences is that Deuteronomy prohibits both coveting and craving, whereas Exodus mentions only coveting. Jeffrey Tigay's commentary on Deuteronomy (The JPS Torah Commentary, p. 72) paraphrases the commandment as "Do not scheme to acquire... do not long for." Both versions appear to forbid a mental state or, in other words, what one should think about.

Some commentaries distinguish coveting from craving as an organizing principle for the Ten Commandments. The Mechilta, the legal midrashon Exodus, explains that if a person craves something, ultimately that person will covet it. If the person covets it, ultimately she or he will steal it. Each level leads to the next, until all the Ten Commandments are broken. Here the connection between action and thought becomes apparent. Simply prohibiting activities does not prevent sinning because we are motivated by our thoughts and emotions. Better to refrain from those intangible, mental catalysts that lead us astray.

Similarly, Rabbi J. H. Hertz, in his twentieth-century commentary, claims that the Tenth Commandment prohibits "anything that we cannot get in an honest and legal manner." He asserts that the law "goes to the root of all evil actions--the unholy instincts of predatory desire, which are the spring of nearly every sin against a neighbor." (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 300)

The medieval biblical commentators Ibn Ezra and Sforno view the prohibition of coveting as forbidding the desire for specific objects. Ibn Ezra begins by noting that we must wonder how the Torah can forbid the desire for something delightful to the eye. After all, the delights of the senses are a gift from God. But a student must train himself or herself to suppress longing for objects that God has not planned for us to possess. Thus avoiding coveting is a matter of training that should begin in early childhood, a lesson that parents today would do well to inculcate in their children. Similarly, Sforno tells us that we should simply view everything that belongs to someone else as beyond our reach. The issue is not that we desire things in general but that we desire specific objects or persons that God has prohibited us to have.

Alternatively, the nineteenth-century commentator Malbim distinguishes between coveting and craving not as degrees of emotional intensity, as the Mechilta does, but as a result of an internal or external driver--either imagination or sight. We do not covet our neighbor's spouses as a result of our imagination: It is only when we see another person in the flesh that we covet that person. But we can covet our neighbor's wealth by imagining what it would be like to possess it ourselves without actually experiencing that sensation. Hence both coveting and craving are common sins in our affluent society.

The Torah generally requires the avoidance of particular actions rather than of thoughts. But in the prohibition of coveting, we recognize a fundamental emotion or thinking pattern that plays a major role in our transgressions against God and our neighbors. For that reason, it assumes a place in the most important law code of the Torah.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How might coveting lead to the transgression of each of the other Ten Commandments?
  2. Can you think of some other "mental" commandments in the Torah?
  3. If coveting involves something specific that belongs to someone else, discuss one thing that each of your family members covets and the damage such coveting might cause to your family and others.
  4. Family Shabbat discussion: Is coveting a particularly grievous issue in modern life. Why?

Mark H. Levin is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, KS.

Opening Ourselves Up to Learning from Others
Davar Acher By: 
Ann Hartman Luban

This week we read one of the most important parashiyot in the Torah. In it, God promises that we will be a mamlechet kohanim v'goy kadosh, a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation," and we promise that kol asher diber Adonai na-aseh, "all that the Eternal has spoken we will do." (Exodus 19:6, 8) But for whom is this parashah named? Is it Moses, our teacher, our prophet, who has guided us on the journey from slavery to the wilderness of Sinai? No, curiously, this week's parashahis named for Yitro (Jethro in English), Moses' father-in-law, the priest of Midian.

In Parashat Sh'mot(Exodus 2), Moses struck the Egyptian taskmaster, fled Egypt, found refuge in the home of the Midianite priest Jethro, and married Zipporah, one of his daughters. The next chapter begins: "Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God." (Exodus 3:1) Why does the Torah repeat whose flock Moses was tending, and why does it repeat that Jethro is the priest of Midian?

Perhaps before Moses is able to see the bush that is "all aflame, yet...not consumed" (Exodus 3:2), the text wants to tell us who helped prepare him for this experience. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky teaches that "through Jethro, Moses learned a lesson that many of us have also come to understand in the spiritual journey of our own lives: It often takes someone else to open us up to a potential relationship with God." (Learn Torah With...5755, Stuart Kelman and Joel Lurie Grishaver, eds., Alef Design Group, 1996, p.129) It is perhaps not surprising then that Jethro, who previously helped Moses with his spiritual journey, reappears in our parashah as the people are "encamped at the mountain of God." (Exodus 18:5)

But Jethro did not come alone. The text states repeatedly that he "brought his daughter Zipporah, Moses' wife, and their two sons to [Moses] in the wilderness." (Exodus 18:5) Why the repetition? Where were they previously? Had Moses forgotten about them in the midst of his task of leading the people? Nowhere in the text does it say that Moses sent for them. Rather, it appears that Jethro, after hearing "all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, God's people" (Exodus 18:1), decided it was time for Moses' family and all of Israel to be reunited. By the time Jethro appears, the Israelites had already gathered at the base of "the mountain of God." Was God perhaps waiting for something before revealing God's self to the people? If Jethro had not come and brought Zipporah, Gershom, and Eliezer, would we still be "encamped at the mountain of God," waiting? What does this incident teach us about our own family? Do we remember to include them during our most important moments, or do we get so caught up in what we are doing that we leave them behind?

Sometimes it takes someone else to point us in the right direction, to teach us something we don't already know, or to remind us of what we know but have forgotten. In this parashah it is Jethro who comes to teach us. Can you think of some other times in our history when we learned from others? From whom can we learn today?

Ann Hartman Luban is a clinical social worker at the Council for the Jewish Elderly and the program director for Holocaust Community Services in Chicago.

Reference Materials: 

Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426
Haftarah, Isaiah 6:1–7:6; 9:5–6
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 710–713; Revised Edition, pp. 507–509

When do we read Yitro

2021, February 6
24 Shevat, 5781
2022, January 22
20 Shevat, 5782
2023, February 11
20 Shevat, 5783
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