Parashat Yitro: The peasant and the princess

The Torah and commandments given at Mount Sinai reveal the deepest secret to us: how to live a complete life.

‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day? (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In parashat Yitro, we read the description of the most awesome event in human history: the giving of the Torah by God Himself. Fifty days after the people of Israel left Egypt, this incredible revelation of God’s presence took place. The Torah and commandments given at Mount Sinai reveal the deepest secret to us: how to live a complete life.

The Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai, 10 commandments that are the core of the Jewish nation’s covenant with God. At the end of this event, for 40 days and nights, God began to teach Moses all the commandments, laws, rules and lifestyle directives included in this covenant between God and His nation.

The 10th and final commandment of the Ten Commandments is perhaps the hardest to implement: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:14).

Following a series of commandments dealing with recognizing God’s presence and the proper behavior between people comes a commandment that delves into man’s most hidden desires and wishes: “You shall not covet!” Man is commanded not to feel the feeling of desiring something that isn’t his, even if it is something very desirable.

This commandment sounds like one that only a select few would be able to implement. Even those who believe in free will and in man’s ability to control himself and his behavior still conceive of hidden urges and desires as instinctive, and therefore not subject to restraint.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra was a poet, philosopher, scientist and great biblical commentator in Spain of the 12th century. In explaining the tremendous significance of this commandment, he offered a wonderful parable:

“Many people are amazed at this commandment. They ask, how is it possible for a person not to covet in his heart all beautiful things that appear desirable to him? I will now give you a parable:

“Note that a peasant of sound mind who sees a beautiful princess will not entertain any covetous thoughts... for he knows that this is an impossibility. This peasant will not think like the insane who desire to sprout wings and fly to the sky, for it is impossible to do so....

“So must every intelligent person know that a person does not attain a beautiful woman or money because of his intelligence or wisdom, but only in accordance with what God has apportioned to him.... The intelligent person will therefore neither desire nor covet. Once he knows that God has prohibited his neighbor’s wife to him, she will be more exalted in his eyes than the princess is in the eyes of the peasant. He will therefore be happy with his lot and will not allow his heart to covet and desire anything that is not his. For he knows that which God did not want to give him... He will therefore trust in his Creator – that is, that his Creator will sustain him and do what is right in His sight” (Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Exodus 20:14).

Ibn Ezra’s parable is drawn from the world of class distinctions. A peasant meets a beautiful princess. Assuming he is of sound mind, he will not develop any desire for her, since he knows there is no chance for someone of his status to marry the princess. He does not desire the princess, just as he does not desire to have wings so he can fly in the sky.

The moral is just as wonderful as the parable and is relevant today as well. Our property and assets, our partners and the people we are privileged to have present in our lives, are all gifts from God. No matter how much we strive to attain something that God did not intend for us to have, we will not succeed, just as we will never grow wings.

In the commandment of “You shall not covet,” God is asking us to adopt this worldview that sees everything we have as God-given. This will lead us to not coveting something that isn’t ours.

The Torah given to us at Mount Sinai teaches us that man’s desires and urges are not disconnected from his thoughts and way of life and are the direct result of how he sees the world. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.