Parashat Yitro: Can you forbid wanting?

MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments is depicted in this 1659 painting by Rembrandt (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments is depicted in this 1659 painting by Rembrandt
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
 It is the most curious of the Ten Commandments and the final one. Prohibitions against murder, false witness, even honoring parents – all involve action. You must behave this way and must not act that way. But “Thou shalt not covet” is different. Ought God to command us how to feel?
Some commentators assume that the prohibition is actually a behavioral one. It forbids not the feeling of covetousness but acting upon it. The Mechilta (an ancient halachic Midrash on Exodus) and following it, Maimonides in the Middle Ages, both argue that this is specifically to prevent scheming and enacting covetous desires. This command doesn’t prohibit desire so long as you don’t do anything about it.
But there is a long tradition of taking the Torah in a more literal sense. Ramban says this commandment is the substrate of all that follows, the section regarding property and other civil laws, since violations of property law begin with trying to acquire someone else’s possessions. Ibn Ezra offers a more psychological explanation. There are many attractive things in the world that we do not covet, mainly because they seem far out of reach. The peasant does not dream of marrying the princess. Rather he dreams of marrying the attractive wife of his neighbor. Therefore, if he can learn to view the wife of another as being as inaccessible as a princess, he will not covet her. Truly believing that what belongs to another could never be yours, reasons Ibn Ezra, immunizes you against wishing to have it.
A remarkable insight comes from R. Yehiel Michel of Zlotchov. Remember that in Hebrew the Ten Commandments are called aseret hadibrot, or aseret hadevarim – (the ten sayings). They are not called commandments. Therefore, says the Maggid of Zlotchov, the last saying is also a promise. Rather than read it as “Thou shalt not covet,” understand that if you follow the preceding commandments, you will not covet. Your life will be spiritually fulfilled and have none of the emptiness or hunger that yearns to be filled with what belongs to another.
This beautiful comment returns us to the majesty of the moment of revelation. At such a spiritual peak in the Torah we cannot imagine that only behavior was legislated and hearts were not intended to be changed. The Kotzker Rebbe offers an observation that brings us close to the urgency of touching the heart’s core: We read (Exodus 20:15): “All the people saw the thunder and the lightning… and they trembled and stood at a distance.”
The Kotzker says that it is possible to tremble, to be moved, to experience the wonder of seeing thunder and hearing lightning – and still stand at a distance. We remove ourselves from the force of that which demands that we change. There is a point inside ourselves, a nekuda p’nimit, that must be touched in order for the moment to live inside of us. 
A religious personality is not created by behaviors alone. The tradition focuses on Halacha, on law, on how we “walk” through the world. There are strong currents however, that go beyond the motions of ritual to the stirrings of the soul. Bahya Ibn Pekuda called it, in the title of his famous work, Hovot Halevavot – duties of the heart.
The purity of such duties is that they are essentially private. No one can know what happens inside another human being. I may behave humbly but be filled with pride or act kindly and seethe with malice. But God is called the “One who knows our thoughts.” The deeper strata of our character are no secret to God. What will we do with this one precious self that has been given us – hide its darkness or burnish it until it shines? 
Judaism seeks not only to direct our behavior but to shape our souls. We are directed therefore, not to covet what someone else has, but rather to yearn to become the person God wishes us to be.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.