In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites in the desert relive the moment from 40 years earlier, when their parents and grandparents stood at Sinai and received Aseret ha-Dibrot, the ten fundamental principles of being in a covenantal relationship with God.
Of all the instructions in the Ten Commandments, the hardest to wrap our heads around is usually the last in the list: “Thou shalt not covet.”
What does it even mean to covet? Why is it so bad as to have made this
universally recognized list? And who’s even going to know if we transgress,
seeing that this is a transgression of thought, not action?
According to the rabbis, coveting is neither jealousy nor greed, but includes elements of both. It is an obsession with a part of someone else’s life that becomes so overwhelming that one begins to make plans to acquire it for oneself. It creates a situation of animosity and resentment of our own making against members of our own communities. Ultimately it leads to a dissolution of the bonds of friendship and trust which are necessary to keep any community together.
Our tradition teaches in Pirkei Avot 4:1, “Who is rich, one who is satisfied with one’s lot.” Wealth is not merely the calculation of our net worth, or the catalog of our belongings, it is the contentment that comes with appreciating each and every day for the blessings it brings.
When we obsess over one part of the world to the exclusion of others,
when our entire focus becomes greed or the desire for a single item above
all else, we objectify anything that gets in our way. We lose our own innate humanity as we begin to see others as merely the means to achieve our own illicit aims. Ultimately, in a society of coveters, there can be no community, since everyone is only concerned with their own personal goals.
So how should we behave instead? When I searched the internet for the opposite of the word, covet, the responses included: despise, disapprove, feel contempt for and other terms of rejection. None of these apply in our case. From the perspective of the Torah, the opposite of covet is empathy.
Pirkei Avot 2:4 teaches, “Do not judge your comrade until you have reached his/her place.” Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. See the world through someone else’s perspective, and you will have a better appreciation for them and for yourself as well.
When we begin to appreciate others, even those with whom we may
profoundly disagree, as the full human beings they are — when we can put ourselves in their places and experience empathy, only then can we open
ourselves not only to others, but to the blessings we are given and the good in our own lives as well.
No one else might know of the coveting that happens inside us, but it leaves a stain on our souls, and is reflected in the general behaviors of our societies.
It is empathy with the ill and the health care workers who are risking their lives to care for them that gives us the strength to endure financial hardship, inconvenience and a suspension of our individual rights in order to fight the pandemic in our midst. It is empathy that lets us feel the suffering of other peoples who have been despised for the mere color of their skin. We recall the lesson of the Torah to not despise the other, for we were once slaves ourselves.
If we can only learn to turn our envy and enmity to empathy, then we stand a chance of building the kind of community described in Exodus 34:24, “For no one will covet your land at the times at which you go up to the Presence of the Lord your God three times a year.”
A society built on mutual trust and empathy is surely one on which God’s blessings rest. JN
Rabbi Tracee Rosen is the spiritual leader of Beth Emeth Congregation of the West Valley.