Off the Pulpit: Commanded not to covet?

By RABBI DAVID WOLPE

How can we be commanded not to covet? After all, wanting something is natural. Yet the tenth commandment teaches us not to covet.

There are many answers in the Jewish tradition. One points to the idea that you only covet that which you believe you can have. Whatever belongs to someone else should be considered strictly off limits, and if you think of it that way you will not covet it. More radically, one Hasidic response reminds us that in the Torah, they are not called the Ten Commandments, but – aseret hadevarim – the ten sayings.

The first for example, “I am the Lord your God” does not exactly fit the structure of the English “commandment.”

Therefore, Rabbi Yechiel of Zlachov teaches, “Thou shalt not covet” is not a commandment. It is a promise. If you live your life according to the other nine devarim, you will not want for anything. While others may be tormented by desires, you will feel grateful and blessed. You will not, as the poet wrote, find yourself desiring ‘this man’s art and that man’s scope, with what I most enjoy contented least.’ The tenth commandment, then, is the reward for observing the other nine – a little inner peace.

(Rabbi David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.)

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