Podcast Episode 4 – The Most Underestimated Commandment

Transcript:

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!

Beautifying Mitzvahs – Celebrating the Commandments of Torah

Celebrate What You Love 

Most anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to the Scriptures, though I love them (and by “love” I really mean “commitment” and not “love” like I love falafel and anything vivace orange), I tend to be pretty straight-forward with them. I usually don’t like to read things into the text or shoe-horn in theology that I don’t think exists plainly in the Hebrew. With that being said, I do enjoy celebrating the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah by going all out/above and beyond (where it is allowed, of course). This is referred to as “beautifying” a commandment. Let me elaborate. 

Tzitzit: Express Yourself. 

The Torah, which can be extremely specific in some cases, leaves a good amount of room for an individual’s interpretation on how to carry out a mitzvah in many instances. One of my favorite examples is tzitzit. Here is what the Torah says about the mitzvah of tzitzit: 

דבר אל־בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת על־כנפי בגדיהם לדרתם ונתנו על־ציצת הכנף פתיל תכלת
“Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.”
– Numbers 15:38

 In another section of Torah, it says to put them on the four corners of your garments, but it really doesn’t say much more about them at all. Many people have asked me how to tie tzitzit. Really, there are so many different answers to this question. You can tie them Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Karaite, with the bunny going around the tree in and down the rabbit hole, or any other way you really want to as long as you include a strand of blue and no forbidden materials (no blood-soaked or pig-skin tzitzit, please). In all actuality, you could just have pieces of blue string hanging off the corners of your garment and it would fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. You could even have tzitzit with one strand of orange to cheer on your favorite NBA basketball team (as long as you also have the blue)! Still, it’s up to you. Some choose to beautify this commandment with different knots and numbered wraps that represent different aspects of Scripture. These people aren’t doing anything wrong, but rather they’re just choosing to beautify the mitzvah of tzitzit. 

Sidelocks and Coffee Mugs

One of my favorite rabbis of all time is a rabbi I met in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) in 2009 by the name of Yom Tov Glaser. Rabbi Glaser talked about beautifying commandments in this way: 

“(Talking about peyot/peyos – the locks that many observant Jews grow long from the temples of their hands in keeping and beautifying the commandment to not shave the hair from the sides of one’s head🙂 You don’t have to grow them long. The reason I grow mine long – and you’ll see many hasidim and other types of people who grow them long – Yemenites grow them long – is our way of saying to G-d, ‘thank You for this opportunity to serve You by not shaving the sides of my head…’
…Kiddush (sanctifying an event with wine) – all I have to do is drink grape juice. You can grab a coffee mug – a plastic coffee mug. But what do I do? I take a $140 silver cup, a beautiful silver cup, handcrafted, and that’s what I make kiddush out of. That’s my way of saying ‘thank You’ to G-d for having given me that mitzvah. That’s what these are (points to sidelocks). Normally, we beautify a positive commandment. These are the rare case where we’re beautifying a negative commandment. It’s says don’t shave, so I grow.”

Mitzvot as My Security Blanket

ken lane side locks peyot

Being that I’m currently in a major life transition right now (recently divorced, trying to figure out life again, etc.), I’ve taken Rabbi Glaser’s advice and have been growing my peyot out long again just as another means of, like he said, beautifying a commandment. Does this mean that all Torah observant people need to grow out these long side-locks? Of course not. All the Torah says is, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard (Leviticus 19:27).” So, as long as you’re not shaving your temples, that is all that is asked. The reason why I am growing mine out longer than the rest of my hair is largely because my current situation has left me feeling vulnerable and I personally feel the need to celebrate Elohim’s Torah in any way I can. Will I ever trim them? Possibly, but for right now, the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah are just like a secur
ity blanket and they comfort me. I usually put my side locks behind my ears because they’re for me and the Father – not for anyone else. They are never, ever meant to be a symbol of piety. If anything, for me, they’re a symbol of weakness and need for help from the Father. Still, first and foremost, they are a “thank You” to my Heavenly Father for giving me the Handbook for Living: His Torah.

Torah: Customization Comes Standard

The beautiful thing about beautifying commandments is that it’s optional. Like Rabbi Glaser said, you can sanctify the Father’s Name with a plastic coffee mug. You can just wear blue pieces of yarn on the four corners of your garment. Still, I personally feel the the reason why so many of the mitzvot of the Torah are incredibly vague and open-ended is because the Most High wants to see us apply this commandments to our lives in a way that fits our own personalities. Maybe you like the traditional Ashkenazi style of tying tzitzit over the Karaite style or you prefer short hair on your temples over long – it’s your decision. When people talk about how restrictive the Torah of the Most High can be, I always want to show them how much room for personalization and growth exists within the Torah itself.

Carrying a Mitzvah

The night before last, my wife and I stopped off at a gas station a few blocks from our home on the way back from some evening errands. I went inside while my wife stayed in the car with the door locked. As I came back outside, I noticed there was a woman at my wife’s side of the car talking to her through the glass. As soon as I stepped out of the gas station, she focused her attention on me rather than my wife in the car. 

“Excuse me, sir? My car is broken down a little ways over and I need a ride back to it. It’s very hot outside and I’m simply exhausted.” 

The woman certainly did appear incredibly exhausted as sweat was making her make-up run, her hair was wet, and the collar of her shirt was soaked through. She was breathing heavy and there wasn’t another car in sight. Without much hesitation, I said “Sure, hop in.” Before I had really a chance to think about it, we were off. 

“It’s just down the street a couple blocks over and under the bridge.” 

As the woman began to tell me where to go, something didn’t seem right about the situation. My mind began to race. Her car is broken down, yet she wants a ride back to it? Why was she in my neighborhood? How had she gotten there? Where she was telling me to go was becoming seedier and more ominous. More shadows loomed and I started to think about what is happening. I looked in my rear-view mirror to the backseat to now notice that the woman’s eyes were sucken and hollow with large gaps where assorted teeth used to be; features that aged the rest of her by decades. Is this a trap? How do I know that a couple able-bodied friends of hers hadn’t dropped her off in a relatively nice neighborhood to lure some unsuspecting good Samaritans back to a place less visible to be robbed? Thoughts started to race of how stupid I was for giving this woman a ride and how thoughtless I had been for not better protecting my wife.

She pointed to a dark spot a block or two away. “There. You can drop me over there.” I didn’t see any car. Quickly, I tried to come up with some excuse for dropping her off just a block short; where the street lights exposed all the details of the corner. 

“I want to take this upcoming one-way street back to where I was. Can you get out here?” 
“It’s just a block over. Over there.” 

My stomach sank. I remembered that my wife had left her cell phone at home, so I started to reach into my pocket for my cell phone to discreetly pass to her in case things went awry so she could call for help while I attempted to fend off any would-be attack; even if in vain. As I reached into my pocket, the lady called out. 

“Here is fine!” Again, I didn’t see a car for blocks and the point where she had called out was a ways before where she said she wanted to be dropped off. Before I even had a chance to grab my phone, I had stopped and the woman jumped out of my car before I could think twice. 

“Thanks!” she exclaimed and started walking ahead; beyond where I had dropped her off. 

Driving back home, I started thinking about what had just occurred. My wife commented about how the woman had a strong smell; like that of a cleaning product. I assumed so because similar products are used to make crystal meth; a popular street drug amongst the down-and-out. My mind jumped back to what had occurred. Why did she want out before she originally did? Why was she there? Why did she request to be taken back? Had some kind of attack been thwarted and if so, how? 

The next day, I relayed my story to a very good friend of mine who is more of a self-defense and weapons expert than I am; especially since I’m not one by any means. As I retold the story to my friend (a friend who has his concealed carry weapons permit and never leaves his home without a concealed firearm), it popped in my mind before he could even mention what I had been thinking: maybe she thought I was on to her scheme and thought I was reaching for a weapon. 

“Dude, that sounds sketchy as all get out. As much as I would have wanted to help, I would have thought it out more. And yeah, both you and Jill should have been armed in that situation. I’m glad it ended up it ended up not being as scary or as sketchy.” 

As I explained to him that I was only trying to do the right thing, he said that was good, but that I need to be more careful with any good works. 

“I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone is needy. I’ve watched teams of con-artists here in town swindle money and things. I’ve almost gotten attacked physically because a buddy and I were trying to help a lady. People are scary at times.” 

So, what do I do? Do I stop helping people in need? Do I say “Thanks, but I don’t know whether or not you’re a thieving crook” and let that prevent me from trying to stay true to myself, my faith, and my fellow man? Do I do what my friend recommended and arm myself? 

When I began thinking about it more, I began to realize that this really is one of the first instances in history when people have started to put their own protection solely in the hands of another entity; mainly, the police. In the past, even with police available, it wasn’t uncommon for citizens to carry protection in the form of a firearm or some other means of self-defense. Only in the past 20-50 years has the practice of carrying a weapon been stigmatized. Sadly, even in this technologically-advanced day and age, when only seconds stand between individuals and danger, the police are, at best, a phone call and a few minutes away. 

Do I really feel threatened enough or feel like I live in a rough enough neighborhood to justify carrying a firearm on my person at all time? Not necessarily. Still, the threat of danger always persists; even in the nicest of neighborhoods. In addition to the possibility of danger, the more people forget about the right to bear arms, the more that liberty is taken from them in the form of more gun regulations which mainly only act to keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens because they are not practiced by the lawless. Those with intent to wreck havoc with a firearm do not pay any mind to “gun free” zone signs or weapons permits. It only tells these individuals to expect less resistance while committing their crimes. 

Am I going to start carrying a concealed weapon? Well, I’d have to start by first legally obtaining a firearm as well as the training necessary to confidently carry and use one. So, while I haven’t yet made up my mind on the issue, it is certainly on my mind; even if for no other reason than it is a right that the founders of my country fought to hold on to. If I do decide to carry a firearm one day, you won’t even know it. If that day comes, I pray to God that I never end up having to use it. 

Shalom.