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Parashat Yitro 5772 – 02/08/2012

Parashat Yitro

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s house.  Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant nor his maidservant, nor his ox nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.  (20:14)
Praiseworthy is the person who passes his test.  For there is no human being whom HKB”H does not test: the rich person – He tests him whether his hand will be open for the poor… (Shemot Rabbah 31:3; Tanchuma, Mishpatim 8) The law, in all its magnificent equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, or to steal bread. (Anatole France) Rich or poor, it’s good to have money! The Revelation at Mt. Sinai was and is the crowning spiritual experience for our people.  Gd spoke to us directly, and we heard Him directly.  The Ten Statements (a better translation of aseret hadibrot than Ten Commandments) cover the whole gamut of creation from its infinite source (I am H”) to our duties to one another.  Commentators have noted correspondances with the ten utterances through which the world was created, and correspondances between the first five Statements and the second five.  I suspect that correspondances can also be made to the ten sephirot, the layers of emanation of creation that radiate from Gd.  If this is the case, then the tenth Statement/Commandment should correspond to the most expressed, surface layer of creation. The surface level of creation is the material world.  Physics tells us that the world of palpable objects is composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are themselves composites of various other particles.  These “elementary particles” are modes of vibration of completely abstract fields.  On the spiritual level as well, Gd radiates from within Himself, and as the light gets more “distant” from Gd, it gets more concrete and opaque and material.  I believe that this is the level which the commandment not to covet is dealing with. There is a problem with the commandment against coveting – it appears to prohibit an emotion.  If we see something and desire it, that desire appears to come spontaneously; we can resist the urge to steal the object of our desire, but how can we resist the desire itself.  As our Sages tell us, “the eye sees and the heart desires.”  The Sages of the Talmud give one answer – the prohibition of coveting is in fact a prohibition of action.  We may not pressure or force someone to sell us something he doesn’t want to relinquish, even though we pay full price.  Since we’re paying full price it’s not stealing, but since he doesn’t want to sell, it’s still wrong.  In the middle ages another approach was taken (by ibn Ezra I believe).  Everything that each one of us is given is given to us for a purpose – so that we can use that object (or talent, or idea…) to perfect the world, to bring about Redemption.  Each of us has a unique mission, a unique rôle to play, and each of us is given the exact set of tools to perform that function.  What someone else has is uniquely suited to him and his mission, and is actually of no use to anyone else.  The commandment not to covet then is a demand that we so internalize this understanding of our relationship to the material world that the desire for somebody else’s anything does not even arise.  It means that we are “joyful in our portion” (Pirke Avot 4:1) and have no need to look outside ourselves for fulfillment. I would like to take another tack that I hope will add another angle of insight.  The items that are listed in the tenth Statement that we are forbidden to covet are all material objects, as we mentioned earlier.  The human being is partly material, and it is this material aspect of our nature that gets involved with the material world.  Our souls, which are purely spiritual and infinite in their nature, get neither pleasure nor sustenance from anything material.  When we covet something, our bodies are demanding that some urge be satisfied, but since everything in the material is finite, there is no way to satisfy all our urges and desires.  Our Sages tell us that nobody leaves this world with even half of his desires fulfilled.  In fact, the more we get in the material world, the more our desires increase, as we see in our own lives and in the economic environment in which we live.  Were it not for social controls that society places on our behavior, our lusts and desires will grow without bound.  When those controls break down, the society quickly becomes quite unbalanced, and in fact unstable. The commandment not to covet, seen in this light, is a requirement that we live the life of the soul – a purely spiritual existence while living in our bodies in the material world.  It bears saying over and over again – unlike some other religions, Judaism does not disdain wealth.  Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, was fabulously wealthy, as were R. Eliezer Hyrcanus (R. Eliezer the Great) and, after he reconciled with his father-in-law, R. Akiva.  These men were all huge spiritual giants, but they also had vast material treasure.  The difference between them and some of the villains of our current economic situation is threefold: (a) Our Sages got their wealth honestly, (b) They used it properly and (c) they were not attached to it.  (See the excellent article by R. Blech on the Occupy Wall Street movement, at

I believe that the prohibition of coveting is summed up in the third of these differences.  Our lives can follow our bodies and become attached to the material, or we can follow our souls and become attached to Gd, Who is infinite.  It would seem that this would be a no-brainer: bask in the light of an infinite, loving Gd or slog through the muck of heavy, dark, opaque material existence.  Unfortunately it is not as simple as making an intellectual choice.  There is a process that we must go through to free our souls from the attachment to our bodies.  This process is intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical, and involves prayer, meditation and performance of the mitzvot of Torah.  Once we have freed our soul from its attachment to the material world, it is free to enjoy both 100% value of the material world and 100% value of the spiritual world which is its true home.  It is no longer pulled in all sorts of negative directions by greed and fear of lack, for it is eternally connected to the infinite Source of all life.  Our soul – that is, our true Self – is finally capable of using our body in the way the Creator intended it to be used: to infuse the infinite spiritual value of life into all finite aspects of life.  This is truly a life worth striving for, truly a life worth living.