The Most Underrated Yet Most Destructive Sin

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 20:17

When Scripture Legislates Thought

Seems prettystraightforwardd, 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.

Making Blessings While Blessing Make You

Call me old fashioned, but one thing that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside is when I actually see people in restaurants stop and “say grace” before they eat. It means that these people actually make it a point to stop and thank God for the food they are about to eat no matter who might be watching. I used to work with a Jehovah’s Witness guy who would hardly so much as look at his food before saying a silent prayer. My wife and I try to do so; usually being more successful in our home than when we’re out, but it’s something I’d definitely like to work on. Some questions some might have about this practice are:

1. Is “saying grace” found in the Bible? 
2. What exactly is taking place while doing this? 

I’ll attempt to answer these questions in one explanation that might wind back and forth a little. 

While saying grace before a meal is nowhere to be found in the Bible, the concept definitely in the Torah. The only thing different about it is the order in which most do it. 

ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את־יהוה אלהיך על־הארץ הטבה אשר נתן־לך

“And when shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” – Deuteronomy 8:10

Yes, most people bless God out of order, but the heart remains. Rabbinic Jews traditionally allot a time of prayer to bless God immediately preceding a meal while most cultures bless Him when everyone is assembled because different people might come and go. It can also be difficult to figure out exactly when a meal is officially over.

Where most commandments in the Torah are extremely concise and to the point with little additional explanation, there is some very good explanation that follows this passage:

“Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe His commands, His laws and His decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” – Deuteronomy 8:11-14

Wow. That totally sounds like something you’d see in the commentary section of Chumash by Rashi; but no, that’s the explanation of it given in Torah. Even thousands of years since then, I don’t know if anyone could have put it better if they tried. Still, what is going on here with this communication? 

Just for the record, the command is not to “bless the food.” This concept of blessing food is a relatively new. It was created through a misunderstanding because, while we say a blessing “over” food, we are not blessing the food, but rather blessing God; the Source of all things. 

Though my wife and I are not Rabbinic Jews, rather leaning towards Karaite Jewish interpretation, we do say a Hebrew blessing over our food that Rabbinic Jews traditionally say over bread. Many modern Karaite Jews use these same blessings and many appear in Karaite liturgy. Practicing Orthodox Jews have different blessings for different types of food, but we find that this single blessing best encapsulates the essence of blessing God for all food (after all, its not really about what kind of food you’re eating, but rather that there is food at all).

The blessing goes like this: 
ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, המוציא לחם מן הארץ

Barukh atta Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, ha’motzi lekhem meen ha’aretz.
Blessed are You, LORD or God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.

The only other blessing over a different kind of food we recite is when we ceremoniously drink wine on Shabbat or during other holidays. That blessing goes like this:

ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, בורא פרי הגפן

Barukh atta Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, bo’rey p’ri hagafen.
Blessed are You, LORD or God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.”

Though some Orthodox Jews might object to us using the blessing for bread before eating a steak, we figure that whatever fed the cow so it could grow large enough to be slaughtered and eaten more than likely came from the earth (that is, unless we start harvesting grains on the moon…which might be a ways off). We use the term “bread” to symbolize food the way the Avinu Prayer says “give us this day our daily bread.” 

Long explanation short: It works for us, which is the most important thing. Finding a prayer, blessing, or whatever expression that you want that best blesses God is all that matters when giving thanks to God for what He provides. It can be spur of the moment or it can be previously composed; as long as it is truly from your heart each and every time you say it, that is the most important aspect of a blessing. 

I hope this blesses you so that you may more easily bless God.