To Covet or Not to Covet: A Post-Shavuot Reflection

A few weeks back, I got an intriguing invitation from Rabbi Zalman Bendet at Chabad of Greater St. Paul, who was putting together a Tikkun Leil (special service) for Shavuot. These services typically consist of study sessions and also tend to go on late into the evening. Rabbi Zalman asked me to choose one of the Ten Commandments and talk about it with the group he was gathering.

To be honest, I hadn’t looked at the commandments in a long while and had completely forgotten about the one that commands us not to covet. Looking at the choices, I thought, coveting is something I do, and it’s also one of the more subtle commandments. That made it very dear to my playwright’s heart — so that is the one I chose.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

The first thing I thought about on reading this text? This is a commandment I do not understand.

I understand not praying to false Gods or even calling on God “in vain,” though I’m still not exactly sure why anyone would do that. (Maybe to pretend to someone else they were religious when they’re not)?

Honoring parents, observing Shabbat, not lying or cheating on your spouse or killing — all these make much more sense to me than not coveting. Yet, it made the Big Ten. There must be some reason it’s way up there, above so many other things we are commanded to do and not to do.

Isn’t coveting something you can accomplish in the privacy of your own home without it bothering anyone or anything else? Is anyone really going to know I’m coveting my neighbor’s house (or that great bougainvillea bush that won’t grow in my own yard?)

I try not to be, but I’m covetous of my neighbor’s yard – or at least my friends’ gardens. Sometimes I want their lives, too, because some of them don’t have to work and can devote their lives to art. Sometimes I want their successes.

I guess this makes me a very bad person, or very great sinner or both.

How do you stop coveting, and most of all, why?

I won’t say coveting can be motivating, because usually it leaves you stuck in envy and that leads to self-pity more than action on your own behalf. If you’re enmeshed in envying someone else, you don’t have time to work on your own artistic endeavors (or garden, for that matter). And it’s all too easy to find excuses for just about anything if you think, “I’ll never have it as good or be as good as this or that person.”

So coveting doesn’t help you, and often sends you into a spiral that’s hard to break. It’s obviously bad for you, like smoking, and makes you mentally and emotionally ill.

But smoking isn’t a ten-commandment, fire-alarm quality sin according to the Ten Commandments. Coveting is, and I still don’t get it.

It’s destructive and even stupid — but why a sin?

Is it because it can lead to a sin? If you covet someone’s wife, would you try and hurt them? I suppose some people have, though I believe it’s rare that most of us would do that. Is it because it could lead to stealing your neighbor’s ox (or bougainvillea?)

Is covetousness the root of many of the sins in the Commandments?

I’m not prepared to say yes, but maybe that’s because I am not desperate enough to be extremely covetous, and when I’m feeling that way I tend to do self-destructive things like over-drinking or eating.

Also sins in my view, though sins against oneself. They are certainly ones I struggle with, sometimes on a daily basis.

I don’t understand this covetous sin, but, on the other hand I like the fact that it’s there.

It tells me that someone (One?) was really Thinking. Some One was saying, “Envy is going to lead to a lot of self-destructive behavior. In one way or another, it could be the root of this list because it can lead to so many branches of it.”

So it gives you another reason not to covet. It lets you know that being happy with what you have isn’t just a good idea, it’s a requirement to leading a good life. Being grateful for the sun, your marriage, friends, the abilities and talents you have or that were gifted you are all keys to being happier and more satisfied.

Being commanded not to covet is interesting because it takes the action out of the realm of options and puts it squarely into the realm of requirements. It says, your own life is important and essential and beautiful, no matter what you have or don’t have, no matter what you want that you aren’t getting.

YOU are important. You are not an afterthought. You are part of this community and who you are matters more than what you have or what you do.

When you forget that, you’re sinning against the One God as well as yourself. You are reducing yourself and others to what they have.

Yes, you want uninterrupted writing time and you want your work to be done all over the world and you want to be a celebrity.

Whether you get that or not in this life isn’t really up to you. It’s up to luck and the ways of the world and some of it is up to how much you work at it and how much time you have for that work.

It doesn’t mean you should stop trying if you don’t have enough time to try. It means you should stop comparing yourself to others, because doing that is the root of all unhappiness and that unhappiness lasts.

And unhappy people can do ugly things, or be lead to do them.

So thank you, Rabbi Zalman, for asking me to take this commandment on. I think in spite of myself, I just may have learned something.

Ten Commandments Photo: John Taylor