The reading for Shavuot comes from Parashat Yitro in the Book of Exodus because it contains the first version of the Ten Commandments. God tells Moses to remind the Israelites that it was the Eternal who brought them out of Egypt. God promises the people that if they will keep the covenant, they will be a holy nation.
Our selection is the tenth commandment:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house: you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor male or female slave, nor ox nor ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's. (20:14)
In the Torah, the holiday of Shavuot (meaning "weeks") celebrates the end of counting seven weeks since Passover harvest. It is also celebrates the harvest, Chag haKatzir (Exodus 23:16) and an offering to God of the first fruits, Chag haBikurim (Leviticus 23:22). Since the Jews no longer lived in an agrarian society, the Rabbis brilliantly connected this holiday to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Therefore, Shavuot is also known as Z'man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah. It is for this reason that we read the Ten Commandments on Shavuot. Perhaps we can find a connection between the celebration described in the Torah and the intention behind the tenth commandment.
Shavuot is a time of giving. People would gather the first fruits of the harvest and give them to the Temple for sacrifice to God. It is a time when we remember that God gave us the Torah. In the Book of Ruth, traditionally read on Shavuot, Ruth gives a pledge to her mother-in-law, Naomi, to adopt her people and her God. In our era, it is often a time when our youth give a public confirmation of their Jewish identity. It seems fitting that on Shavuot we are cautioned not to desire to take what belongs to another.
What is the real harm in coveting? Desiring someone else's possessions does not normally constitute a crime in the way that murdering, stealing, giving false testimony, or adultery do. After all, aren't most of us a little bit jealous of someone who has what we lack? First of all, we perceive others through the lens of our own challenges. When we feel overweight, we assume that our neighbors do not have to worry about theirs. When we are overworked, we think that our friends are on vacation. When our son or daughter acts up, we wonder why other children seem so easy to manage. Secondly, we live in a world where resources, opportunities and blessings are not evenly distributed. We perceive injustice and feel that we deserve more than we possess.
Some of us are motivated by a sense of dissatisfaction with our lot in life to change something about ourselves. Others succumb tocoveting, wondering "Why me?" and feeling that life is not fair. Psychological research has shown, however, that there is a difference between stabs of envy that might motivate us and their pathological variant. People who are dissatisfied with life in general are more envious, as are people who exhibit neuroticism, which is characterized by tendencies to feel worried, insecure and excitable. (Psychology Today, October, 2005)
Perhaps we are commanded not to covet because just like the other prohibited behaviors, this one has the power to destroy the fabric of community. We cannot help ourselves or each other when we are obsessed with envy. When we covet, we blame others for our lacking. When we covet, we want to trade our life with some else's. When we covet, we cannot see that we can take some action to improve our situation. When we covet, we might use our sense of injustice to justify inappropriate actions.
It is especially fitting, therefore, that this commandment is read on Shavuot. It is on Shavuot that we were given the Torah, and it is up to us to decide whether or not we accept this gift. Coveting is the antithesis of Shavuot. When we accept the lives we have been given, we are keeping the tenth commandment, keeping Shavuot and keeping the Covenant. As we read in Pirkei Avot 4:1, "Who is rich? One who is happy with what one has."
1. Think of a time when you coveted something of someone else's. How did you feel about the owner of the coveted object? Did your feelings affect how you acted?
2. Plaut defines covet as, "desire improperly, with the hope to dispossess one's neighbor." (479) Do you think this feeling has the power to hurt people and relationships?
3. How can you be commanded not to feel a certain way? What strategies do you have for remembering your blessings and combating jealousy?
For Further Learning
Read the midrash below (Shabbat 88b-89a) about how the Ten Commandments were given. Does this enrich your understanding of the form and content of the text? Your understanding of Moses and the Ten Commandments?
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught, When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels dared say to the Holy One, "Master of the Universe! What business does one born of woman have in our midst?"
God replied, "He has come to receive the Torah."
They argued, "This precious thing, which has been stored with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You are about give it to mere flesh and blood? "O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is Your name in all the earth! Let Your majesty continue to be celebrated above the heavens…. What is man, that You art mindful of him, and the son of man, that You should think of him?" (Psalms 8:2 and 8:5)
Then the Holy One said to Moses, "Let you be the one to reply to the ministering angels."
Moses spoke right up, "Master of the Universe, I fear that they will consume me with the fiery breath of their mouths."
God said, "Take hold of the throne of My glory and reply to them."
Moses spoke up again, "The Torah You are about to give me, what is written in it? "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt." (Exodus 20:2)
Then, turning to the angels, he asked, "Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? What need have you for the Torah? What else is written in it? "You shall have no other gods that others worship" (Exodus 20:3)-do you live among the nations who worship idols? What else is written in it? "You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain" (Exodus 20:7)-are there business dealings among you [that might lead to a false oath]? What else is written in it? "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12)-do you have a father or mother? What else is written in it? "You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal" (Exodus 20:13)-is their rivalry among you, is the impulse to evil within you?
At that, the angels conceded to the Holy One…. Then each of the angels came to be favorably disposed toward Moses and gave him a token of his favor….
Shavuot, Exodus 19:1-8, 20:1-14
The Torah, A Modern Commentary, pp. 522, 539‒554; Revised Edition, pp. 473‒474, 476‒480;
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 412‒413, 416‒419