What is the most commonly violated teaching in the entire Torah? I think one could make a very good case for the last of the Ten Commandments, as found in this week’s portion, Yitro: “You shall not covet” (I write this in the immediate aftermath of three hours’ worth of Super Bowl ads, for which corporations spend millions of dollars precisely in order to induce us to covet—and purchase—their products).
Why is this so injunction so difficult? With very few exceptions, the Torah offers guidelines for our behavior. Thus the commandments which precede this one address, among other things: keeping Shabbat, respecting one’s parents, and avoiding idolatry, theft, murder, false witness, and adultery. Then, suddenly, we get that rare exception in which our tradition seems to legislate against thoughts and feelings. How is this even possible? Do we really control the storms of emotion and desire that flood our hearts and minds? Shouldn’t it be our actions—rather than our thoughts—that finally matter? What harm are covetous feelings if we do not act upon them?
One answer to this puzzle begins with the recognition that in our Jewish tradition, we do not actually use the Christian term “Ten Commandments”; we refer to them as Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Utterances. With this in mind, the tenth utterance may not be a commandment at all. Instead of translating “Lo Tachmod” as the imperative “You shall not covet,” we might instead read it as a statement: “You will not covet.” In other words, as my colleague, Rabbi Mark Glickman puts it, if you sincerely observe the first nine teachings--honor your parents, celebrate Shabbat, show fidelity to your spouse, take only what is yours, and all of the others—then you won’t be so tempted to want what you do not have. In the words of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (born in Prague around 1565): “ If your heart be filled to overflowing with the love of God, it is impossible that it would covet anything from among all the beautiful things of this world, for then there is no place in the heart that would desire or covet anything at all. It is like a full cup, unable to receive any more.”
There is much wisdom here. How do we deal with our culture’s incessant calls to covetousness, to craving all manner of consumer goods and services? By learning to truly value what we already have, savoring the blessings in our lives rather than obsessing about what we lack. As Pirkei Avot teaches: “Who is happy? One who rejoices in his or her portion?”
Or, to quote a more contemporary source, in the words of Sheryl Crow: “It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.”