During a recent Zoom meeting, a participant remarked that she dreaded video calls, lamenting, “Seeing everyone else’s beautiful homes makes me feel bad about mine.”
During the pandemic, we have spent an unprecedented amount of time on screens, enjoying a strangely voyeuristic view of others’ personal spaces. In addition to video calls, we are using social media platforms more than ever to seek connection. This increased use of technology is a mixed blessing. To our benefit, it has allowed us to overcome physical distancing to communicate with family, friends, community members, and co-workers; to attend baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and funerals; to pray, learn, and support each other.
But the video calls, Instagram pictures, and Facebook posts can also inflame our covetous inclinations.
This week’s Torah portion Yitro includes God’s giving of the Aseret Had’varim, literally “The Ten Utterances” (labeled such by Ex. 34:28 and Deut. 4:13), or as we commonly refer to them, The Ten Commandments. Concluding these foundational laws, the tenth commandment instructs, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, no male or female slave, nor ox nor ass, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:14)
The Ten Commandments are repeated in the book of Deuteronomy with a slightly different iteration, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. Likewise, none of you shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Deut. 5:18) The addition of the word lo titaveh, crave, adds to the confusion about this commandment, which seemingly prohibits spontaneous feelings.
The rabbis struggle to understand the prohibition of coveting. They question: Is this law addressing feelings, actions, or both?
The 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra argues that this commandment requires that our thoughts be trained from childhood not to desire what is not appropriate for us to have. Therefore, he explains the peasant knows not to desire royals for a spouse or even close relatives for mates (Ibn Ezra on Ex. 20:14). Emphasizing the connection between thought and action, the 16th-century Italian Sforno warns, “Once you begin to covet something belonging to someone else, it is only a short step to committing robbery.” (Sforno on Ex. 20:14)
In fact, some commentaries see the prohibition of coveting as referring to scheming to acquire the thing desired. In this reading, the tenth commandment is forbidding action, not thought. This includes an action as small as pressuring someone to sell us the thing they own but we desire (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Robbery and Lost Property 1.9). While there is no conclusive answer to whether coveting is a thought or action, it is clear that our thoughts do matter, deeply affecting our self-perception and actions.
Desire is not considered to be innately negative in Judaism. For example, the Talmud proposes, “jealousy among teachers increases wisdom,” (BT, Baba Batra 21a), meaning that working alongside an inspiring role model can cause teachers to strive to be more impactful instructors. Desire, envy, and jealousy can be mighty motivators to be our best selves. On the other hand, coveting diminishes us and potentially degrades our society. Therefore, it is our work to cultivate our thoughts to lead us to productive ends and away from covetous ones. We may not be able to stop a thought from coming into our minds, but we can control the fuel and direction we give it. We can consider why we have felt the longing and refocus our thoughts on more positive goals.
Like the participant in the Zoom meeting, I too am subject to moments of envy, especially during the pandemic when life feels like a series of deprivations. Seeing posts of homes that seem nicer, bigger, or filled with more people can inflame covetous thoughts. Even before the pandemic, social media has been criticized for negatively impacting our mental health by exposing individuals, especially adolescents,  “to endless filtered images that make it impossible not to make comparisons between yourself and others”  ( Jade Wu, “Does Social Media Cause Depression?”).
The technology which opens the world to us, especially during physical distancing, has always come at a price. In her book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, Internet pioneer Tiffany Schlain reminds us, “The desire to reach out and feel connected is a fundamental aspect of our species” (Schlain, 24/6, 95). Technology has become another mode through which to connect. Yet, “All the social media on our screens is filtered – sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. It’s always, in some way, distorted, edited, reshaped” (Schlain, 96).
When that woman made the remark about the pain caused by Zoom, I reminded her that what we see on a video call is a curated view of another’s home and life. My own computer screen is carefully tilted to avoid revealing the boxes and piles of paper cluttering my office. What you see on the screen is only one facet of my reality.
In the 1stc. CE, Simeon Ben Zoma taught, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with their lot…” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1). The Talmud also asks this question, providing the answers of four different rabbis, “Who is wealthy? Anyone who gets pleasure from his wealth, that is the statement of Rabbi Meir…. Rabbi Tarfon says: A wealthy person is anyone who has one hundred vineyards, and one hundred fields, and one hundred slaves working in them. Rabbi Akiva says: Anyone who has a wife whose actions are pleasant. Rabbi Yosei says: Anyone who has a bathroom close to his table” (BT, Shabbat 25b). Rabbi Meir’s universalistic response echoes Ben Zoma’s teaching, while the other three rabbis answer according to their lives. Tarfon was wealthy; Akiva owed his success to his wife; Meir had gastrointestinal disease (Panim Masbirot by Moses Hazan, 17thc. Prague, on Shabbat 25b in Koren Talmud). Their contentment was linked to recognizing the blessings in their lives.
Our modern contentment depends in part on our ability to use technology wisely, discerning its benefits and challenges, recognizing when our covetous inclinations are being stoked by curated realities. As Schlain writes, “On social media, we’re all plants, leaning toward the sunlight we can’t get enough of, seeking the warmth of likes, hearts, and retweets. But staying rooted and grounded is important. Being intentional about how you use social media and having your own strategy gives you time to process how it’s affecting your life and find what you may want to change” (Schlain, 102).
We can start the work of having a healthier relationship with technology by recognizing our covetous thoughts and limiting their impact on ourselves and others.
Schlain, Tiffany. 24/6: The Power of Unplugging one Day a Week. New York: Gallery Books, 2019.