Toppling the reign of desire: The Tenth Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, December 2010

Candace R. Kwiatek

In one of my favorite family stories, my husband managed to tame the “greed monster.”

We were carting our young children through the grocery store, to their usual chants of “I want…” In a moment of inspiration, my husband pointed to an object on the shelf and stated, “I want that.”

The kids were startled. Turning to another shelf, he pointed and asked encouragingly, “You want that?” The kids nodded happily. “I want that, too,” he noted. He moved on, pointing to another object, “How about that?” Again, they nodded, excited. “How about one of those? I want one of those.”

On they went through the store, pointing, wanting, and only buying what was needed; and the kids got the message that desires are both natural and to be controlled.

Described as the energy of motivation and action, desire is an essential component of free will and therefore an integral part of being human.

As such, it is a recurring theme in the Bible. Jacob wanted Esau’s birthright. David wanted Bathsheba. Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard. But as many of the Bible stories illustrate, people tend to desire more than they need or that which is not theirs. So limits are necessary.

The Tenth Commandment — You shall not covet…(JPS) or You shall not desire…(Fox) — has troubled commentators throughout the ages because of its apparent emphasis on feelings rather than actions.

In keeping with the biblical focus on behavior, some scholars have interpreted “covet” as an action: for example, Rashi understood the Tenth to refer to the theft of anything other than people, as kidnapping was the focus of the Eighth Commandment.

Taking a different approach, both the Mekhilta (commentary on the Book of Exodus) and Maimonides concluded that one is guilty of coveting only when actions accompany the covetous feelings.

On the other hand, the Bible indicates that feelings also can be legislated. After all, we are commanded to love God, our neighbor, and the stranger; not to abhor an Edomite or an Egyptian; and not to “hate your brother in your heart.”

Therefore, the majority of commentators conclude that the Tenth Commandment applies specifically to covetous thoughts, not deeds alone.

So what does “covet” actually mean? Unlike the general malaise of envy or discontent over another’s advantages, success, or possessions, coveting is the intense desire that encourages action without regard for the rights of others. I want it, I want it my way, and I want it now!

The Tenth Commandment “is about inculcating a realistic sense of want versus need,” writes David Klinghoffer (Shattered Tablets).

“Its goal is to stop us from thinking excessively about things that don’t belong to us.”  In short, this commandment prohibits longing for anything we can’t obtain honestly and legally (Baba Metzia 5b).

Yet, according to Ibn Ezra, this final commandment isn’t just case-specific, limited to acquisition. Rather, it is about the disciplining and conditioning of our minds overall.

It isn’t only about self-control and observance, but about character development: “…the highest level of personal refinement, of character development, is when (a) noble, principled action is not just an external action which may not reflect our true intention or desire, but when we are thinking along the same lines as our actions,” writes Mordechai Wollenberg in Thought Control.

Master not just our behavior but our feelings as well? In this final commandment, has the Torah presented us with a prohibition that we cannot possibly obey? After all, today society teaches us that “feelings just are.”

How can we possibly control or even change our desires? Nonetheless, that is what the commandment demands. And it is within our capability, as the ever-popular treatise on the commandments, Sefer haChinukh, contends,  “…it is indeed in one’s power to restrain himself…It lies within his free choice and his decision to repel his desire or draw it near…he rules his heart and can guide it as he wants.”

Just like training for a healthy body through exercise and nutrition, training for a refined character takes commitment and conditioning.

Training begins with awareness and a willingness to improve. Recognize the covetous thought and then stop it in its tracks.

One technique is to consciously replace such a thought with another uplifting one. For example, when a traffic accident blocks your journey, say a little prayer of comfort for those involved rather than letting your frustration at the delay take control.

Another is to do something benevolent. Instead of resenting a co-worker’s job promotion, plan a congratulations party.

A third is to regularly express gratitude and appreciation for what you have and not focus on what is missing. Character building takes practice!

If the whole Torah is contained in Hillel’s behavioral adage, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” why do the Ten Commandments end with a prohibition against being ruled by emotions? It is to teach that our behavior, unlike that of animals, begins not with our hands but in our minds and hearts. It is to teach us that we can reject being slaves to our instincts and master our feelings and thus avoid immoral, unjust, or unkind actions.

It is to teach that, “while mitzvoth are a way of life, they are not ends in themselves, but means to a further end: the formation of a holy character,” (Menachem Kellner, Broken Tablets).

As we topple the reign of desire, bit by bit we can become menschen (humane people) both in fact and in spirit.

Family Discussion: In Genesis 4:7, God tells Cain that he can master his feelings and ultimately his behavior. It’s a matter of free will. How might Cain’s story have been different if he had succeeded? Describe an experience in which you did or did not master your feelings: what was the outcome?


Literature to share

Menorah Under the Sea by Esther Heller: How does the Festival of Lights come to life in Antarctica? Using photographic images and simple text, a marine biologist shares his tale of celebrating the holiday far from home and family in a creative and meaningful way.

Hanukkah Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig: Written and illustrated for elementary ages, this is a wonderful introduction to the holiday for everyone. Opening with the traditional tales and candlelighting rituals, it includes background information, variations on traditions, and even hints on how to make the candles burn longer. The most interesting selections, however, are the holiday stories and accompanying cultural notes about Jewish communities around the world — from Israel to Uzbekistan to Australia, each accompanied by a regional recipe for the festival.

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