This week's parasha, Va'etkhanan, gives me an opportunity to revisit the aseret habdibrot, the ten commandments. There's one commandment, in particular, that, for some unknown reason, popped into my head as something I wanted to muse upon this week. That commandment is the tenth, the one commandment (depending on how one views the first commandment) that is (apparently) focused on thought more than deed or action.
V'lo takhmod eyshet reyekha, v'lo titaveh beyt reyakha sadeihu v'avdo v'amato, shoro, v'khamoro, v'khol asher l'reyakha.
And you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, and you shall not crave the house of your neighbor, his field, or his male slave or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.
The first thing to note is that this construction in D'varim is changed from the construction in Exodus 20:14
Lo takhmod beyt reyakha lo takhmod eyshet reyakha v'avdo, v'amato v'shoro v'khamoro v'kol asher l'reyakha
You shall not covet the house of your neighbor, you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.
In Exodus, the order is house, wife, etc. Here in D'varim, the order is wife, house, etc. In addition, the verse begins with a conjunctive vav, making this commandment part of a string beginning with murder and continuing "and not commit adultery...and not steal...and not bear false witness..and not covet. In Exodus, each commandment begins with the simple negative particle "Lo" with no connecting vav.
Finally, the text in D'varim introduces a second verb into the sentence. In Exodus, the verb "takhmod" based on the root khet-mem-dalet is used twice. Here in D'varim, the verb takhmod is used first (in reference to the wife) and the verb titaveh based on the root "alef-vav-hey" precedes the remainder of the things one should not "crave."
While scholars disagree on the exact translations of these two verbs, there is some consensus that the khet-mem-dalet root form means desire in a "delighting in" sense, whereas the alef-vav-hey root forms means desire in an "inclination" sense. Some scholars equate "alef-vav-hey" with desires and inclinations of the nefesh, that is, they are natural inclinations and desires. "Khet-mem-dalet" is more often associated with selfish, undisciplined, desire - perhaps a more "over the top."
One wonders how this plays into the whole rabbinical construct about how and when men interact with women. The distinct separation (and placing first) of the commandment to not inappropriately desire your neighbor's wife seen oddly juxtaposed with the Exodus construct, in which the house comes first, yet women, slaves, beats of burden et al are all things in which we must not delight to the point of covetousness. The neighbor's wife is placed in a distinct class.
While all this is fascinating, what drove me to muse upon this text this week is more of a global observation that our society is so strongly structured to encourage covetousness, that, for some, the very idea of not coveting may seem anathema, and, at the very least, a difficult, if not impossible commandment to fulfill.
Perhaps these are socialist or Marxist ideas floating to the surface, yet I cannot help but wonder how much the idea of "not coveting" has been used as a tool to keep the oppressed happy. It's all well and good to not covet when one lives the good life. It's another story when one is struggling. Those without look at those who have, and might not be able to help but wonder if all of those who have got there fairly, and are deserving of what they have.
We are bombarded constantly with advertising that is designed to get us to crave, to desire, to covet. Might this bombardment be an underlying cause in increasing crime? If so, then there is another argument for teaching people to not covet. Still, how many of the rich get richer by insuring that the poor are taught to be content with what they have?
Certainly coveting things has great potential for causing problems. It can certainly lead to envy and jealousness, and those often lead to other bad things. It can cause people to be very unhappy with their own situations. As the Bard put it:
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope
With what I most enjoy, contented least. (Sonnet 29)
Ironically, however, Shakespeare's solution to his downcast state is to think happily on his love. I've little doubt that mixed in with Shakespeare's love is a bit of desire to delight in the pleasures of his love.
Some rabbis and commentators have suggested that the real lesson in the commandment to not covet is to recognize that what we see of our neighbor's lives might not be the whole story. It's just another way of saying "be careful of that for which you wish" and "always look at the big picture."
is there ever a time and place when coveting is the right thing to do? When covetousness is the right way to feel? I'm hard pressed to find one, although can imagine a scenario in which covetousness can spur an oppressed minority to seek their full rights and share. Coveting can, in a "positive value of yetzer hara" sort of way, spur one to try harder, be more ambitious, etc. Or is this entirely the wrong motivation to succeed? I suspect that it is, however, given the values of modern society, I'm afraid that those who seek success without some element of covetousness are going to find it rough going.
In the musical based on the movie "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" there is a song in which the ambitious younger con-man sings of his desire for "Great Big Stuff." This desire spurs him into participating in a complicated high-class scam, though in the end, he and his older, more experienced partner turn out to have been scammed by their own mark, who turns out to be an even better con-artist. Still, the older con-artist sings how it was still a blast for them, and doesn't seem to put out by this reversal of (potential) fortune. In the end, all three decide to work together. Proving that crime does pay? One way of looking at the story is that the younger con-artist perhaps comes to learn that it isn't the "stuff" at all, but the thrill of the game? A subtle anti-coveting lesson or not?
I covet. I suspect you covet as well. I do think I can say that, at this point in my life, I don't covet all that often or all that much. Is it because I have taken the commandment to heart, or because I have learned from experience that coveting is a waste? I suspect the latter. Would my life be even better now if, from the very start, I had taken the commandment to not covet into my heart? I wish I could say for certain that this is so, but I'm still not certain.
So what are "lo takhmod" and "lo titaveh" really about? Something to ponder this Shabbat.
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester