Shalom everyone and welcome to episode 4 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast. I’m Ken Lane, aka: Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com and this podcast will cover something extremely unique we find in the Torah: legislation of the mind. Let’s get into it!
I’ve noticed that there’s one mitzvah – one commandment that gets the least amount of attention – yet deserves the most – and it’s found in Exodus 20 at the tail end of the rest of the 10 commandments.
לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדֹּ֤ו וַאֲמָתֹו֙ וְשֹׁורֹ֣ו וַחֲמֹרֹ֔ו וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey or whatever belongs to your neighbor.”
Seems pretty straight forward, right? Think again – literally! Though classically thought of as the 10th Commandment (or utterance) of the Decalogue, this prohibition is one that surpasses one’s physical conduct and requires the practitioner to actually adjust the way they think. In most teachings on the Decalogue, this mitzvah gets swept under the rug because it’s almost impossible to enforce. How does anyone else know when you’re admiring the form of the lady bent over the copy machine in the office or shaking your mental fist at your buddy’s new car when you compare it to your clunker?
What’s even more startling is when you realize that, though this mitzvah is dead-last on the list of the ten utterances, it’s almost always responsible for us committing the other nine. Whether you envy your friends who go out to the movies on Shabbat or allow your heart to lead by your head over some infatuation with someone other than your spouse, what leads up to transgressing the mitzvah of breaking Shabbat or committing adultery is the “act” of coveting something. Though the tablets of stone end with this one, they also start with this one.
One of the most detrimental aspects of violating this commandment is the effect it has on relationships. No other sin pins brother against brother, friend against friend and destroys community faster. All power-grabs are attributed to transgression of this mitzvah. In the same way, many marriages have been destroyed by the wandering eyes and therefore wandering hearts of spouses. Every day, they see what they could have had. This turns from seemingly innocent “window shopping” to entire fantasies built up in people’s minds until they feel they must act for the sake of fulfilling their own desires. Just as soon as the fantasy has a chance to become a dream-come-true for the coveter, it becomes a nightmare for their spouse and family – oftentimes for them as well.
Just like other sins we strive to avoid, the 10th commandment is no different – it requires preparation. In the same way you prepare for Shabbat by making sure you have the day off work, grocery shopping beforehand and working out all of the details the week prior, abstaining from coveting works in a similar way. Here are few of those ways.
- Guard Your Eyes: Modesty goes beyond what you wear – it’s also where you choose to indulge. If your eyes are a hurdle, practice looking away from potentially tempting sights. It’s difficult at first so you may need to “feed your animal” a bit by rewarding yourself on your successes until it becomes habit. If you can successfully keep your eyes off the cute guy in marketing (sorry, ladies – I’m taken) or other things that may tempt you, reward yourself with something you like – just make sure it’s kosher.
- Train Your Brain: Sometimes, whether you like it or not, temptation will always find it’s way to your line of vision. You may have to work with that lady who insists on wearing low-cut blouses everyday and you really do value her friendship. In these situations, conjure up the most unsavory thought you can think of. Imagine that same blouse on your buddy Carl who is about 40 pounds overweight and maybe doesn’t shower everyday. Better yet, imagine she’s Carl – warts, odors and all!
- Remember What You Have: One of the biggest reasons people start to covet what other people have is that they take what they themselves have for granted. While your husband may not have the broad shoulders of that handsome UPS guy that delivers to your neighborhood, remember why you married your husband in the first place. He loves you and cares for you. He would be do anything for you. Recall all of the things that first drew you to him. Keep this at the forefront of your mind. One practice that many observant Jews use to keep their mind in the right place is by reciting blessings over the little things in life. Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen once said in a shiur, “A bracha (blessing) is a protest against taking things for granted.” When you make a bracha over your food, you’re actively telling God, “This may just be a hum-drum sandwich out of a plastic bag, but it’s from You and I haven’t forgotten that.” In the same way, you should periodically make a bracha over your husband, your wife, your children, your parents, heck – even your clunker.“Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, Who has blessed me with this 1987 Plymouth Horizon. I could be walking 7 miles to work, but I have this!” (Side note: I really do miss my ’87 Plymouth Horizon…not that I’m coveting those who have them…just saying…)
Abstaining from coveting requires a perception shift. It requires the conscious act of not reducing objects to their lowest form of your emotional desires, but instead seeing people as they are – fellow earthlings with their own doubts and fears just like you. By coveting, you’re taking your attention away from a feeling of gratitude and shifting it towards greed – which will never satisfy. Choose an attitude of gratitude.
So, the question remains – why is this mitzvah listed amongst the 10 utterances?! It can’t be legislated. No prosecution in the world can find sufficient evidence for a crime that is committed within your own heart and mind.
What’s the answer? God wants to help you. What is unique about this mitzvah? We don’t find a listed punishment for breaking it. If you kidnap, you can be killed. If you harm someone, you have to make restitution. Even if you commit manslaughter, you’re exiled for a time. If you covet something, then what?
The only evidence that can be found regarding this mitzvah is the evidence of God’s love for you. You see, this mitzvah is a tool for you to use. It’s a freedom from the distractions of vanity. It’s a training regimen for your mind to not be tied up things that really don’t matter – in the urges that, when misallocated, become destructive. And I’m not talking destructive on some lofty spiritual plane – no, destructive to your daily life and to your household. If you’re conditioned to crave what you don’t have (many times, just because you don’t have it), you’re not only never satisfied with what God gives you, but then it’s incredibly difficult to truly experience happiness and simple pleasures. We hear stories of millionaires and billionaires and we want that life. They have gorgeous wives, handsome husbands, cars, fancy vacations, extravagant houses with all the amenities and then what? Many of those marriages end in divorce. Some of these people go bankrupt. Some turn to drugs and other addictions simply to fill the void – the void of “enough.” God gives us this mitzvah as a tool to help us see “enough.” Then these people that we once thought were on top of the world look to the poor family with the children that truly love their parents, the husband and wife whose love has been strengthened by having to weather storm after storm, their ability to be satisfied by simple joys. They covet this.
This commandment is a gift – the gift of joy and happiness – even in the tiny amount of material things we possess in this world. God blesses us with this law for our own sake.
This has been episode 4 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast. I hope that it’s been a blessing for you in order to help you better appreciate what you have in this world. I’m Ken Lane, aka: Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com. Shalom!