We are currently in lockdown in Montreal and the pandemic does not seem anywhere near being over. Many are angry and frustrated by the limitations imposed upon us, by all that we cannot do or have, by where we cannot go and who we cannot see. Mental illness, depression and anxiety are on the rise. And what do the experts suggest? Practice Gratitude. And we do!
Every morning, as Jews, we say Modeh Ani, Thankful Am I, for all that G-d has done for us and given us. Yet how many of us truly reflect on this and take the time to truly think about all the gifts in our lives? How many of us are actually feeling that thankfulness?
In parashat Yitro we bear witness to the Revelation, when G-d delivered the Ten Commandments to Bnei Israel at Har Sinai amidst claps of thunder and lightning. This momentous occurrence is the foundation of our faith when G-d gave us the laws that govern our relationship with Him and our relationship with our fellow man. These commandments are the foundation of a just and lawful faith-based society: acceptance of Hashem as our G-d, respecting our parents, observing Shabbat, not killing or stealing, …. Yet the tenth commandment asks us to overcome a basic fundamental trait that even the most pious among us would likely struggle with. “You shall not cover your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, and all that belongs to your fellow” (Shemot 20:14). It is a commandment that requires us to control our thoughts. In fact, Rabbi Moshe M. Lieber goes so far as saying that this prohibition “seems unreasonable” (The Torah Treasury, 2002). Many of our sages have struggled with this commandment, offering several interpretations.
The Rambam explains that the prohibition of coveting is a fence, a boundary, we must build within ourselves to prevent us from sliding down the slippery slope whereby “desire leads to coveting, and coveting leads to stealing” (Hilkhot Gezeila Va-aveida 1:11). Our envy is thus the first step that could potentially lead us to transgress other commandments such as theft, adultery and even murder. It is therefore incumbent upon us to work on overcoming this inclination as a personal safeguard.
According to the Ibn Ezra, this prohibition is an act of faith. Thus, he relates the parable of a lowly peasant who never aspires to marry a princess, someone entirely outside his world, his existence, but rather would set his sights on a young woman from a neighbouring village. Though these social barriers no longer exist, the message holds. If we view what G-d has not given us as forbidden, and truly understand that in our hearts, we accept that G-d has given us exactly what we need and we should not want for more.
Beit Halevy also views this commandment as an article of faith, and suggests that coveting the possessions of others is like focusing on the scenery when driving on an icy road. One is so distracted by the sights, that panic hits when a patch of ice wrenches our attention back to the road; we should always be driving as though imminent danger awaits on the road ahead, alert and focused on our own path. “Our fear of Heaven should not allow us to focus on someone else’s property”.
On a more literal level, Rabbi Yitzchak Silberstein explains that in listing all of man’s possessions, we learn that “you shall not covet all that belongs to your fellow”. When you envy your fellow man, the “all or nothing” principle must apply. “If you are not ready to accept someone else’s misery, then you should not be desirous of having his good fortune” (Aleinu Leshabe’ach vol 1). Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Twersky, z”l, recounts the well-known saying that if everyone’s circumstances were put in a bundle and the bundles all put in a pile with everyone free to choose the bundle they wanted, everyone would end up choosing their own.
The Sefer Ha-Chinukh holds the tenth commandment as a demonstration of the free will of man. Not only do we have choice in relation to our actions, we have choice internally, in our thoughts and emotions. “[A person] rules his heart and can guide it as he wants.” In this interpretation, the commandment becomes a statement of our greatest freedom.
“Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot” (Psalms 128:2). At a time when our lives are turned upside down and nothing feels as it should. We cannot really travel, we cannot go out at night, we cannot visit our friends, …. the list is long and with some variations, boils down to feelings of unfairness and envy of those who can do all these things. None of these thoughts make us happy, and we are certainly struggling to “rejoice in our lot”. But what if we truly believed that G-d has given us everything we need. What if we took the time to appreciate what is before us. To appreciate the people in our lives, the roof over our heads, the food we have to cook. We are free to decide how we feel about our lives and our circumstances, and that is the incredible gift that G-d has given us with the tenth commandment.
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School