It’s usually the time leading up Yom Kippur that most of us focus on the concept of sin, but really the best time to focus on sin is the moment immediately following that time. With this in mind as we start a new Torah cycle, I’ve noticed that there’s one het, or sin, that gets the least amount of attention – yet deserves the most:
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.”
– Exodus 20:14
When Scripture Legislates Thought
Seems pretty straight forward, right? Think again – literally! Though classically thought of as the 10th Commandment 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? This is a tough one.
Why The 10th Commandment Should Actually Be The First
What’s even more startling is when you realize that, though this het is dead-last on the list of commandments, it’s almost always responsible for committing the other nine. Whether you envy your friends who go out to the movies on Shabbat or you’re a teenager and begrudge your friends who get to go out when you’re grounded, what leads up to transgressing the mitzvah of breaking Shabbat or sneaking out when your parents tell you to stay home is the “act” of coveting something. Though the tablets of stone end with this one, they also start with this one.
When a “Dream-Come-True” Becomes a Nighmare
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 this het. 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 comes a nightmare for their spouse and family.
Like Getting Ready For Sabbath, Get Ready For a Covet-Free Day
Just like other sins we strive to avoid, the 10th commandment is no different – it requires preparation. In the same way you prepare for the Sabbath 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.
- Guard Your Eyes: Modesty goes beyond what you wear – it’s also where you choose to indulge. If your eyes are 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. 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…)
In the end, abstaining from coveting requires a perception shift. It requires 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. Today, choose an attitude of gratitude.