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Coveting And Its Consequences

By Rabbi Moshe Weisblum

There once was a woman of humble means who purchased the cheapest crib she could find for her newborn baby. Right behind her in the store aisle was another woman and her mother, who purchased the most expensive crib and stroller the store had to offer. In her heart, the poor woman was jealous and wished she had the money to buy something so beautiful. Until, that is, she got to the register and overheard a conversation between the two of them. “Do you think the crib we’re buying will fit in the room?” the mother asked her daughter. “I’m not so sure it will. The baby is on oxygen and life support, after all. I don’t know if the crib will fit alongside all those big machines.” When the woman heard this, she said to herself in relief: “Thank our Creator I have a healthy baby! That’s a better gift than the fanciest crib and stroller!”

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox or ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:14)
The scripture tells us the story of the ancient Israelites gathering at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. These commandments form the moral basis of our world societies ethical system. The tenth commandment, however, raises a difficult issue. This commandment – Thou shall not covet – forbids any kind of envy over who our neighbor is or what our neighbor owns. We shall not covet our neighbor’s home, wife, husband, servants, animals, or anything they possess. Here we find a commandment that forbids us from even thinking about our desires. One might ask: “Can I even follow this?”

If my neighbor drives up in a brand-new BMW and I look over at my beat-up old Subaru, is it not natural for me to feel a bit of envy? In the Ethics of our Ancestors chapter 4, our Jewish tradition proclaims, “Who is rich? Whoever is happy with their lot.” This is a noble idea, but can we as human implement it?

Some of the biblical commentators’ view that this last commandment is only a warning against inappropriate actions – such as stealing an item that we covet —and not inner feelings. But that doesn’t truly sit well upon reflection because the commandment is speaking about an inner feeling – that of desire. So how can this be reconciled?

Many biblical commentators struggled with reconciling this commandment. One answer that illustrates via a parable was given that just as a simple peasant would not covet a beautiful princess, as she is far out of his league, so we won’t covet something that is impossible for us to get, since it’s not ours and isn’t available to us.

Perhaps we should view this commandment in a positive light. Rather than coveting our neighbors and their possessions we might just endeavor to better ourselves; see what we lack in order to reach new heights, follow our dreams, and achieve them! Amen!

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