These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Tricky Number Ten

Posted on February 6, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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Rachel Bikofsky (Summer '12) wrote a reflection
on last week's Parshat Hashavuah (Parshat Yitro).

We could all stand to take this lesson from her book:

As parshiot go, this past week’s–Yitro–was a Big One.  Amid tremendous spectacle at Mt. Sinai, Hashem revealed to the Israelites the Ten Commandments.  Although the rest of the Torah would not be given until later, this first phase was monumental in its own right.  For a full translation of the Commandments, visit this page…but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll give a quick recap:

  1. I am Hashem, your G-d.
  2. You shall have no other gods besides Me.
  3. You shall not take the Name of Hashem in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet. 

Commandments 1-4 are pretty essential to the essence of Judaism, so it seems logical that the list would lead with these.  Regarding Commandments 6-9, these are critical guidelines for morality, not to mention vital to the safety of the community and the maintenance of public order.  Although I’m sure no one enjoys a completely conflict-free relationship with his or her parents, it does make sense that (except in the most extreme circumstances) it is a child’s duty to honor his or her parents by respecting them and providing them with what they need, materialistically and emotionally, as they age.

But what about Commandment # 10?

Personally, I find this to be the trickiest one of all.  It is the outlier on the list because unlike the rest, which primarily govern our actions, this one is directed at our thoughts.  While it is relatively easy to control what we do, it is a lot harder to control what we think–especially when the thought is fueled by such a common emotion as jealousy.  Is it realistic to think that a person could honestly live in a culture such as ours and never allow herself to feel envious of someone else?  Furthermore, let’s say I do feel jealous…as long as I don’t go out and actually steal the thing I want, or murder someone to get it, is the feeling itself really so bad?

Well, although I’m no master scholar, I’ve learned enough Torah to know that nothing is in there by mistake.  So, I decided to look a little closer at Commandment # 10 and see if I could figure out why it merits being on the same list as “You shall have no other gods besides Me,” and “You shall not murder.” I started by thinking about the role that “coveting” has played in my life.

Interestingly, my first memory of coveting something of my neighbor’s dates all the way back to preschool, when I was fiercely jealous of my friend’s long, silky, braided pigtails.  I watched the way she would whip those braids around her head with confidence and flair, something I knew I would never, ever be able to accomplish with my standard-issue bowl cut (which, although adorable in retrospect, seemed at the time to be most unfortunate).  I looked at my hair in the mirror in dismay.  If I could just have those braids, I thought, I would be a better version of me.  I was four years old.  What an early age at which to start seeing myself as “less than” someone else!

This sense of never measuring up favorably, of wanting someone else’s skills, style, or demeanor, only continued.  I was jealous of my friends’ athletic talents, singing voices, and fashion sense; I envied their social ease and confidence.  When I was struggling with anorexia, I strove to make my body smaller and smaller until I could win the much-sought-after title of “sickest girl”–something I never seemed able to attain.  The side effect of all this coveting was that I never stopped to appreciate what I did have–the skills I possessed, the achievements I’d accomplished, the character traits that made me special.  I was so busy focusing on what everyone else had, and what everyone else’s life must be like, that I neglected to nurture my own strengths and validate my own journey.

For me, coveting has rarely been about material items, but it has nearly always been about personhood.  Simply put, I was never satisfied with who I was, and I felt that if I could only have whatever “it” was that other people internally possessed, I’d finally be a person worthy of positive attention, a person who mattered.  I think this mindset of self-negation is what makes coveting so dangerous.  When we want something someone else has so badly that we convince ourselves that we need it in order to be worthy/ happy/ successful/ etc ourselves, we invalidate our own value as the people we actually are.  Additionally, coveting leads us to forget that Hashem designed each of us to fill a unique space in the world.  We are not meant to all look the same, act the same, or all have the same things.  When we covet that which is not ours, we are essentially saying that we know how our lives are supposed to be better than Hashem does.  This is NOT to say that we should just sit back and passively take whatever comes our way with the understanding that Hashem will provide us with everything we need.  On the contrary, we should take an active role in our own lives, but we should do so in a way that is authentic to who we really are–not in a way that tries to make us into someone else who we assume, “has it all.”

I have by no means mastered the art of Thou Shall Not Covet, and I have a feeling that it is going to be a work in progress for a while.  But, I do feel that I am more aware of when I slip into that mindset, and I understand better the harm it causes to my relationship with myself and to my relationship with Hashem.  I wish for all of us–myself included–the ability to replace thoughts of, “I don’t have enough ________”, with the thought (and belief) that not only do we HAVE enough, but we ARE enough–as is.