Yitro: The Half-Empty Glass

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Shemot 20:14)
Ever chasing
after something
to fill the gap
of lack perceived

yet if we turn,
our true self beckons
to live the life
already ours

replenishing the glass
that seems half-empty
till light-splashed water
overflows.


In a commentary on Parashat Yitro, http://www.rabbisacks.org/to-thank-before-we-think-yitro-5776/, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks notes that the ten commandments are usually portrayed as two sets of five, the first set appertaining to our relationship with God (including honouring our parents since they, like God, brought us into being) and the second appertaining to our relationships with other people.
Rabbi Sacks adds, though, that there is also a certain logic in grouping them in threes: the first trio (one God, no other God, and not taking God’s name in vain) are about God, “the Author and Authority of the laws”. The second trio (keeping Shabbat, honouring parents, not murdering) are about “createdness”. He says, “Shabbat reminds us of the birth of the universe. Our parents brought us into being. Murder is forbidden because we are all created in God’s image (Gen. 9:6).” The third three (refraining from adultery, from stealing and from bearing false witness) are about the foundations of society: “the sanctity of marriage, the integrity of private property, and the administration of justice. Lose any of these and freedom begins to crumble.”
In this configuration of threes, Rabbi Sacks notes, the tenth commandment forbidding envy seems to be the anomaly. He says, “At least on the surface this is different from all the other rules, which involve speech or action. Envy, covetousness, desiring what someone else has, is an emotion, not a thought, a word or a deed. And surely we can’t help our emotions. They used to be called the “passions”, precisely because we are passive in relation to them. So how can envy be forbidden at all? Surely it only makes sense to command or forbid matters that are within our control. In any case, why should the occasional spasm of envy matter if it does not lead to anything harmful to other people?”
Rabbi Sacks believes that the Torah is teaching here of the perils of envy, which we meet first very early on in the Torah in the tragic episode of Cain and Abel. Some generations later, we learn that Abraham lies to the king, claiming that Sarah is his sister, rather than his wife, so that the king will not covet Sarah for her beauty, and kill Abraham in order to possess her. In the next generation, Isaac does the same with regard to Rebecca. And not long after, we read of the fateful repercussions of the envy of Jacob’s sons for their brother Joseph.
Rabbi Sacks says “So the prohibition of envy is not odd at all. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments as a whole. Not only though do they forbid it; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commands, reminding us of God’s presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our createdness, that help us rise above envy.
“We are here because God wanted us to be. We have what God wanted us to have. Why then should we seek what others have? If what matters most in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of God, why should we want anything else merely because someone else has it? It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to other people that competition, strife, covetousness and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.”

In a note on the last of the Ten Commandments, the Etz Hayim also commentary points out, “Many commentators are troubled by the apparent prohibition of a feeling, when the general pattern of the Torah is to command behavior, not thought. Can we control our feelings or are we responsible only for our actions?” Although some exegetes resolve the issue by interpreting the words literally or implicitly slightly differently, none-the-less most agree that the text does actually prohibit covetous thoughts. So the Etz Hayim adds, “It may be difficult to control our emotions, but we may never excuse our behaviour by claiming that our emotions overcame us so that we could not help doing what we did.”
(The practical Halacha derived from this verse prohibits longing only for what we cannot obtain honestly and legally (Talmud Bava Metziya 5b.))

On the same verse, the K’tav veHaKabbalah* says the following, “Many have wondered about this mitzva, how is it possible for someone not to covet something beautiful, for the heart covets by itself, against the person’s wishes? And as we see, the author of the Sefer HaBrit** wrote on the verse, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” – what would have been missing from the text, had it been written, “And you shall love the Lord your God with your heart,” – what did it want to say by [adding] the word “all”? So the intention is that your heart shall be filled with the love of God. This means there shall be in your heart the love of God alone. It should not have in it also worldly desire. And if your heart is filled to overflowing with love of God… there will be no room for covetousness, like a full cup which can receive no more.”

Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotshov *** said, “It is a known difficulty [in the text], how is it possible to ordain a negative injunction about something that is not in a person’s hands? Even if the person wants to avoid coveting, the envy will enter his heart in any case. Only that “You shall not covet” is also a promise. A person who is careful with the [other] nine holy commandments and observes them, will surely not covet.”

In a commentary on Parashat Yitro, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/yitro/5775/bite-desire, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, too, addresses this verse, saying, “Do you covet? I do, and it makes me sad. Perhaps I’m too hard on myself. We all see things that we want, don’t have, and wish we did. There is too much in the world that is bright and shiny — offering pleasure and excitement — not to see it and feel the ache of its absence in my life. And I speak not only of the ephemeral delights that beckon. Even more difficult to contemplate are my fellow human beings whose personal and professional lives leave me despondent when measuring myself against them: scholars who have written books that I haven’t, friends who seem to be better spouses or more successful parents, people who have paid off their mortgages, men who still have all their hair. In short, the list is endless.”
Rabbi Diamond says, however, that what most bothers him is not the craving itself that arises, but the effect it has on him: “What disturbs me most is that I am the victim of my own coveting. For I am robbing myself of the joy and satisfaction I could feel in the life I am actually living.” He cites Pirkei Avot 4:1: “Eizehu ashir? Hasameach bechelko – Who is wealthy? One who is happy with one’s portion.” And he asks how to accomplish that ideal, when he sees around him that certain people seem to be better off in various spheres.
Rabbi Diamond observes that from the dawn of history, discontent epitomises the human condition. Adam and Eve, he says, are placed in a beautiful garden, with every pleasing fruit-bearing tree imaginable and invited to delight in everything there, save the one Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They lack nothing, but it is the fruit of this one forbidden tree that they end up eating. Rabbi Diamond notes the words used when describing the incident “Vatereh ha’isha ki tov ha’etz lema’achal vechi ta’avah hu la’einayim, venechmad ha’etz lehaskil…- When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom…” (Bereishit 3:6) The words for “delight” and “desirable” “ta’avah” and “nechmad” are etymologically connected with and anticipate those used to proscribe coveting both in Parashat Yitro and in Parashat Va’Etchanan, respectively (“lo titaveh – you shall not covet,” and “lo tachmod – you shall not crave”).
He continues, “And something terrible and paradoxical occurs. The act of eating and enjoying the forbidden fruit reveals to them that in denying them the fruit of that one tree, God had indeed withheld from them a pleasure otherwise unattainable. Was the fruit sweeter than any other in the garden or did it just seem so because of the thrill surrounding its forbiddenness It does not matter. They now know that prohibition is indeed a form of deprivation. As a consequence, neither they nor their descendants will ever a gain experience true wholeness; they will always feel as if something is missing…”
Rabbi Diamond adds, “We are descendants of Adam and Eve and inheritors of their tragic self-inflicted curse. What shall we do? Let us meditate again on the rabbinic dictum cited above. Let us read hasameaḥ beḥelko in the active rather than the stative sense. Being happy is often no more than a passive state of indifference, resignation, or self-delusion. My challenge is to create a state of happiness for myself. And happiness is not the word we need here; the appropriate word is joy, something richer and more expansive. When I inhabit my life fully, when I learn to savor what I have and use it to full advantage, when I value the strengths that I have and make peace with my weaknesses, when I build connections with those I love rather than nurturing resentment against them — then I have built for myself a joyous life. And when I live in joy, the distractions of desire lose their power over me. And if my head is turned now and then by something tantalizing that is beyond my grasp, so be it. I need only turn back and move forward into the arms of the full and joyous life waiting to embrace me and to be embraced.”

In a commentary on Parashat Yitro, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15476#.VqlCS_l97IU, Rabbi Dr Eliyahu Shafran cites Rav Soloveitchik who reminds us that in the morning blessings we praise God as the One “she’asah li kol tzarki – Who has supplied all my needs.” Rabbi Shafran suggests that we learn from this that God provides us with the wherewithal to fulfill our potential. If we see ourselves as reflections of the divine, he suggests, this liberates us from the desire for more.
Rabbi Shafran concludes “There is the story of a boy who dwelled in the mountains. Looking across the valley, he found himself fascinated by a house on the opposite side of the valley. Each evening its windows were sheets of shining gold. Drawn to this seeming treasure, he made his way across the valley toward the house. But the path was difficult. Exhausted, he lay down and slept.
“Early the next morning he hurried to the house. Instead of finding sheets of gold, he discovered that the windows were but ordinary glass. Disappointed and bitter, he turned toward home, but then stopped in surprise. Across the valley, he saw his own home, and it was agleam with windows of gold!”

*Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785 – 1865) was a German Rabbi and scholar of the 19th century, best known as author of the Torah commentary HaKetav VehaKabbalah. Born in Lissa (Leszno), in the province of Posen, Germany, in at a time when was a famous center of Torah studies, and Rabbi Mecklenburg began studying Torah as a student of the local Rabbi, Zechariah Mendel, who was a friend and correspondent of Rabbi Akiva Eger.
Rabbi Mecklenburg initially went into business. In 1831, at the age of 46, following commercial difficulties, he decided to leave the business world and was offered the rabbinical position in the city of Königsberg, East Prussia. At that time, Koenigsburg Jews were under the increasing influence of the Haskalah, a movement, which Rabbi Mecklenburg strongly opposed. Together with the Malbim, he publicly opposed Reform Judaism’s 1844 Braunschweig convention. In the same period, he wrote HaKetav VehaKabbalah, his own commentary to the Torah.
He served as Rabbi in Königsberg, for the rest of his life, for 34 years. Before his death, he ordered that no eulogies be given at his funeral. In his will, he requested that Haketav Vehakabbalah be read after the public Torah reading, during the first 30 days of mourning.
**Sefer HaBrit was authored by Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu of Vilna. First printed in 1797, it was a compendium of the scientific knowledge of the time (astronomy, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) together with a presentation of the kabbalistic worldview.
***Rebbe Yechiel Michel of Zlotshov (died 1786) was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. Rabbi Yechiel Michel founded the Zlotshov dynasty. (Zlotshov is the Yiddish name of Zolochiv, a town in present-day Ukraine.) His five sons all founded their own branches of the Zlotshov dynasty. Descendant dynasties include the Zvhil, Skolye, Zvhil-Mezhbizh and Shotz dynasties.

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