Parashat Yitro: Faith, morality and free choice

‘You shall not covet’ is the result of deep faith in God. If you believe that you do not deserve something that is not yours, you will not covet it!

‘MOSES ON Mount Sinai’ (c. 1895-1900) by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘MOSES ON Mount Sinai’ (c. 1895-1900) by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week we read about the event that shaped the Jewish nation, the occurrence that made us into a unique people with a sense of mission to repair the world: the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Less than two months after the nation was liberated from slavery in Egypt, it gathered at Mount Sinai and watched a spiritual event the likes of which had never occurred before, and have not occurred since. It was a public revelation the entire nation – men and women – could see, with the core being the Ten Commandments, which include all the basic tenets of Judaism.
Indeed, anyone who reads the Ten Commandments sees that they are foundational commandments that deal with both man’s relationship with God (commandments pertaining to faith, prohibition of idol worship, keeping Shabbat, respecting parents) and man’s relationship with others (prohibitions of murder, adultery, stealing, giving false testimony).
The last commandment on the list of those between man and his fellow man is “You shall not covet.” Every Jew is forbidden to desire an object belonging to someone else.
Isn’t this a prohibition that is just too difficult? A prohibition forbidding us to do something is understandable. For example, someone who desires something belonging to his friend is prohibited from stealing it. But are we capable of controlling our actual desires? Can a person decide not to want something he wants? Why should it be forbidden to want something that belongs to someone else? How does it hurt, if this desire is not actualized?
There were those among the Jewish sages who saw “You shall not covet” as a law meant to prevent those deeds that could stem from unrestrained desire. Thus, writes Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, among the greatest of Jewish sages, 1138- 1204), “...coveting leads to robbery. For if the owners do not desire to sell... the person motivated by desire will be moved to robbery.... And if the owner stands up against them to save his property... he will be moved to murder” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Gezela Ve’aveda, chap. 1). Accordingly, the Torah wishes to prevent us from committing robbery or murder, and therefore it forbids the emotional process that could lead to them.
Can a person stop himself from coveting?  Can we control our desires?
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (commentator, philosopher and poet, 1089-1164) struggled with these questions. He answered them with an analogy appropriate for his times: “A peasant sees the beautiful daughter of the king. He does not wish to marry her, because he knows it’s impossible.” Ibn Ezra’s explanation can be rephrased as follows: Man does not desire what he knows he can never attain.
Why is an object that belongs to someone else unattainable? Ibn Ezra answers this with an impressive message of faith:
“And so he is satisfied with his portion and does not allow his heart to covet and desire something that is not his, for he knows that God does not wish to give it to him; he cannot take it by force or by his thoughts or schemes. He has faith in his Creator, that He will provide for him and do what is good in His eyes.”
According to Ibn Ezra, “You shall not covet” is the result of deep faith in God. If you believe that you do not deserve something that is not yours, you will not covet it!
One of the sages of the Middle Ages whose identity is unknown to us wrote Sefer Hahinuch – a book of Halacha (Jewish law) and philosophy that briefly summarizes all the Torah’s commandments. In his opinion, this prohibition points to an essential tenet of Judaism in relation to free choice.
He says, “A person has the ability to prevent himself, his thoughts and his desires from anything he chooses... and his heart is in his own hands.” The prohibition “You shall not covet” is not surprising. Indeed, man with his free choice, can control even his desires – “control” meaning not only not to act on them, but to nullify them if they are negative.
The prohibition “You shall not covet” connects us to many different concepts. It stems from the desire to distance ourselves from bad acts. It is possible through faith in God’s supervision, and it points to man’s powerful ability to control himself, both in deed and in his own inner world.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.