The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Saturday, April 13, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Frank: Mark, I have always been fascinated by the fact that it was the Jewish people who gave the world its first introduction to monotheism as well as laws which God instructs us to follow by giving Moses the Ten Commandments. 

 I have also noted that, while many of these Ten Commandments are most often quoted, such as honor the Sabbath, honor your father and mother, thou shalt not murder, steal, commit adultery, or give false testimony”, the tenth commandment, thou shalt not covet your neighbors house, his wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor”, is not well known, not often quoted nor well understood.  

So, I want to ask you, a learned Rabbi, what does this commandment mean, and why is it included in this famous giving of laws to the Jewish people? 

Mark:  Frank, our sages compared the temptation of coveting to a certain type of idolatry. This carries two risks and exposes two vulnerabilities within us. 

First, to envy another human being, or to lust after their spouse or to covet their possessions or property, was akin to idol worship, in that we might fall prey to obsessing over neighbor’s possessions or their better lot in life than ours. We come to worship them as opposed to our Creator. Those we envy or covet demand the same things our God would demand of us—namely our time, our focus, and our energy, each in all consuming ways. 

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, our coveting of others makes us less grateful for our own blessings we have in each of our own lives. We tend to overlook or even ignore those cherished relationships we should honor, uphold, and safeguard within our own hearts, including those relationships which are sacred to us and to those we love. We become less grateful to God for the gift of each new day we draw breath, and for all other blessings in our own lives that truly are beyond measure. We come to believe that “the grass is always greener on the other side,” all the while discounting and disregarding the bounty of our own harvest. 

Frank: I like your explanation and it makes me wonder why God did not just put as number ten, the commandment, “thou shalt be grateful.” By being grateful for what we have we are, in a sense, honoring and thanking God for all we do have in our lives and thereby avoiding envy and jealousy and the desire to have what others have and we do not.  

There is a story that I have always enjoyed telling and that is emblematic of the premise that we should be grateful for what we have in our lives. At a party given by a billionaire friend, Kurt Vonnegut, a famous author tells his friend Joe Heller, also a famous author who wrote the widely read book, “Catch 22” that their billionaire host made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his extremely popular book. Heller responded with, “Yes, but I have something he will never have.” “What is that” responded Vonnegut. To which Heller responded, “Enough.”  

Mark: Frank, you have really hit on the reasoning for and the eternal wisdom of the tenth commandment. Envy can destroy our ability to recognize and appreciate the blessings each of us enjoys in our own lives. Jealousy of others can severely mask our ability to be content with our own precious gifts that often lie right before us, even right beside us. There is a difference between ambition for ourselves and adoration for the achievements of others. 

We only have this one life. Why should we expend so much of our time, focus and energy in craving what we perceive exists in the lives of others, rather than cherishing and honoring what we already claim to cherish and enjoy in our own? 

And here we touch upon the heart of the matter: When we come to covet the relationships that we see in the lives of others, we come to worship them, we do so at the risk of neglecting the relationships of our own. Some may even do so at their own peril, endangering the connection to those most close to them. Some will covet in the most painful of ways: They will violate their obligations to their spouse or other loved one in pursuit of their neighbor’s husband or wife. In doing so, though they may claim to worship God, they are, in fact, bowing down to their own desires, worshipping themselves rather than their Creator. 

Frank: No matter how much we have in our lives, there are always others who have more and while it is understandable to seek to increase life’s advancements and bounty, it is imperative that we find a way to be grateful for what we do have and that is the over- arching message of the tenth commandment. Gratefulness is a virtue that leads to a life of meaning, contentment and peace and directs us to a path of loving ourselves and thereby loving God. 

 The first three of the ten commandments address the need to love and honor God, and these commandments are followed by honoring the Sabbath and our parents. The next four deals with specific actions for us to avoid. The last of the ten commandments returns to the demand that we believe in and honor our God, and to do this, we need to be grateful for what we have, all we have done, and all those we have loved. Although being placed last, it is understandable that God put, “thou shalt not covet” in the top ten. 

 

Rabbi Mark Schiftan can be reached at mschiftan@aol.com 

Dr. Frank Boehm can be reached at frank.boehm@vumc.org  

 

  

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