Ten Commandments as Way to Save the planet

"Do not covet" stands as one of the central messages of Divine revelation; living within consumer society makes it easier to understand why.

shopping new york 311 (photo credit: AP)
shopping new york 311
(photo credit: AP)
The Ten Commandments given in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, culminate with the command not to covet: “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.”
The context of this verse is an agrarian, pre-consumer society. To those living in the first 3000 years of Jewish history, one might covet their neighbor’s two-room house, donkey or field.
Yet, we live in different times – modern, consumer-oriented and technological. Therefore we covet different things and more of them-- I-Phones and luxury cars, fancy vacations and large homes. As advertisers learned long-ago, one who covets soon comes to consume – usually in a way which impacts the planet.
What does our tradition teach about how to avoid coveting?
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg in his book "Haketav VehaKabala", published in 1839 in Prussia, relates the command not to cover to another one: “You shall love the Eternal One your G-d with all your heart.” He asks, why did the Torah state: “…with all your heart?” Would it not have been sufficient to write simply “…with your heart”?
Rabbi Mecklenberg explains that the Torah emphasizes loving G-d with all of one’s heart to teach that a person should be totally committed to Divine service, and not split between love of the Eternal and love of physical pleasures. He uses the metaphor of a cup, filled to the brim, with no room for anything else. So too a person full of love of the Infinite has no room for pure physicality. Filling one’s cup with connection to G-d can prevent over-attachment to physical pleasures.
The Jewish tradition does not call for living as ascetics or in poverty. Rather, consuming from the physical world is part of how we serve G-d. When that is the outlook for a person's use of material good, one will likely consume less because they will realize what their true needs are.
What effect does present-day consumption have on the world at large? A study researched how many acres of biologically productive space the average person uses per year, in terms of their food, water, energy, and other consumption (see http://myfootprint.org) . That is, how much land is calculated as necessary to support the lifestyle of one person on the planet?
Over 58 acres (and the consumption of Westerners is significantly higher).
How many acres is the earth believed to be able to produce on a renewable basis for each of the 6.9 billion people in the world?
39 acres. 
That means the average person consumes over 50% more than what the earth can sustain. Multiply this by billions of people and you can see how consumption is taking an environmental toll on the planet, resulting in air and water pollution and extinction of species. A consensus of international scientists state that human-caused global climate change is likely to bring on more severe storms, floods, and droughts, with major impacts on human societies.
A Midrash teaches (Midrash Melech Moshiach) that G-d “caused [Israel] to hear the Ten Commandments since they are the core of the Torah and essence of the mitzvot (commandments), and they end with the commandment ‘Do not covet,’ since all of them depend on [this commandment], to hint that for anyone who fulfills this commandment, it is as if they fulfill the entire Torah."
'Do not covet' therefore stands as one of the central messages of Divine revelation. In these times of consumption-driven global change, it is easier to understand why. May we find inspiration to reconnect to our Source and save the planet in the process.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars (www.jewishecoseminars.com). This article is adapted from Canfei Nesharim's Eitz Chaim Hee series of environment-focused commentaries on the weekly Torah portion.