By: Avner Friedman
The Ten Commandments are repeated in this week’s Parshah with slight variations from how they appear in Parshat Yisro. The tenth commandment deals with the prohibition against coveting. It states, “And you shall not covet your fellow’s wife, you shall not desire your fellow’s house, his field, his slave, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.” In other words, it forbids the desire to unjustly acquire that which belongs to someone else. Now, of course, if your friend has a wonderful and pleasant wife, there is nothing wrong with wanting to find a wife as good and pleasant as she. If your friend owns a gold wristwatch, there is nothing wrong with wanting a similar wristwatch. The prohibition only applies to wanting his wife or his wristwatch.
However, this commandment is still very puzzling. We can readily understand that the Torah commands us against certain actions. After all, a person is in control of his actions, and although he may be burdened with lusts and desires that drive him to wrong action, ultimately he is responsible for his own actions. He has the power to overcome his desires and do that which is right and good in the eyes of HaShem. Desire, on the other hand, is a drive that arises in our hearts of its own accord and is thus very difficult to control. Why did HaShem command us to avoid the desire itself? How could He demand something which, on the surface, does not seem to be under our control? After all, we are only human beings and not angels! Can there be laws that deal with desires and emotions rather than just actions?
In his commentary on our Parshah, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this commandment could only have been given by HaShem, the Divine Lawgiver, rather than mortal man. Man can legislate against wrong action, such as theft and murder, but only G-d Himself could ask us to sanctify our very thoughts, feelings and desires; to purge ourselves of jealousy and covetousness. This is because the purpose of Torah is not merely to perfect us in the sphere of actions, but to profoundly transform and sanctify our whole being, in thought, speech and action, including the sphere of desire.
In his “Letter from Eliyahu”, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler asks, “How can a person not feel a tinge of jealousy when he sees his friend achieve success, happiness or honor? Is this tendency not imbedded in our very nature?” In answer, he refers to the commentary of Avraham Ibn Ezra who explains that the matter of faith (Emunah) is integral to the mitzvah not to covet. Ibn Ezra states that if a person has true and complete faith in Hashem he will recognize that everything he has comes from HaShem and that one person’s fortune in life does not affect another person’s fortune in life. This being the case, as our sages stated, whatever his neighbor possesses simply does not apply to him, even to a hair’s breadth. Through the commandment not to covet the possessions of our fellow, the Torah is instructing us to develop this type of faith. It teaches us that, through faith, every Jew has the capability to develop his personality and train himself even in the area of his desires, thoughts and emotions and to put his trust (Bitachon) completely into HaShem’s hands.
In His infinite wisdom, HaShem gives each individual exactly what is needed to develop his or her character and come closer to Him. Each one of us is given the tools we need to fulfill our G_d given purpose, and what our friend possesses is not relevant to us. Each one plays his special part in fulfilling the greater will of the Creator. Rabbi Dessler compares this to a watchmaker and a woodworker who are jointly building a “Grandfather Clock.” It would make no sense whatsoever for the watchmaker to covet the woodworker’s hammer in order to do the delicate work of assembling the inner mechanism of the clock, nor would it make sense for the woodworker to want the watchmaker’s tiny pliers and screwdrivers with which to build his cabinet. This would be like a person who covets his neighbor’s eyeglasses even though the prescription is very different. Not only would they not improve his vision, they would ruin it! A wise and faithful person would never covet the tools of life his friend has been given. He would realize that HaShem has given him exactly what he needs to fulfill his own mission and purpose in life.
The problem, Rabbi Dessler writes, is that we think in physical rather than spiritual terms. We think in terms of quantity rather than quality. In the physical realm, if an object is in the domain of one person, it cannot be in the domain of another. If I have a chocolate cake and I give you half of it, I have just lost half the cake. However, the spiritual is a realm of qualities. For example, if I possess knowledge and I impart that knowledge to you, I have lost nothing. On the contrary; I have gained. Firstly, the act of explaining it to you forces me to dig deeper into myself in order to convey it to you, and in the process, I too gain deeper, more profound understanding. Secondly, the fact that I have enlightened you brings greater light and understanding into the world, of which I too am a beneficiary.
As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson puts it; a Jew should be like a lamplighter. When a person lights the candle of another with the flame of his own candle, not only is his flame not diminished, but on the contrary, the light is doubled, and if the second candle is used to kindle yet another flame, the light is tripled. Likewise, when one Jew kindles the soul of another Jew by imparting Torah and mitzvot to him and that Jew also kindles other souls who, in turn, kindle other souls, a very brilliant light of G-dliness can be brought into the world in a relatively short period of time and the whole world benefits.
Looking at it from this perspective, all our worldly possessions are tools given to us by our Creator to enable us to fulfill our special purpose in His service. Each of us is given exactly what we need, and what may be beneficial to one, may be detrimental to another. With this kind of perspective, what is there to covet?
Now, as quoted above, the commandment first lists particulars that are forbidden to covet and ends with a general statement, “Nor anything that belongs to your fellow.” Would it not have been sufficient just to state the general rule which would automatically include all the particulars? Why does the Torah state both the particulars and the general principle? However, here the Torah is teaching us that people have the tendency to always think that, “The grass is greener on the other side”. We look at isolated particulars of another person’s life and are jealous. “So and so has a wonderful wife or a beautiful house or great wealth” and we are jealous. This only happens because we ignore the whole person and only focus on certain particulars of his or her life. But in truth, each of us has been given a “short blanket”, so to speak. If one part of us is covered, another part is exposed. If we would look at the whole person, rather than just the particulars that we envy, we would discover that we would not at all be happy living their life. We would discover that there are many problems and difficulties in their life that we would not wish upon ourselves and we would be happy with our lot, as our sages taught us in chapter four of Pirkei Avot, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.”