Cov•et Pronunciation: (kuv'it), v.t.
1. To desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others.
2. To wish for, esp. eagerly.
Random House Unabridged Dictionary
The last of the Asares HaDibros, ‘Lo Sachmod’ (Shmos 20:14), instructs us not to desire any objects that belong to our friends and neighbors (the word sachmod is translated as covet, which means to desire).
This stands out markedly from the previous four dibros, which are all mitzvos lo sa’aseh (negative commandments). One could lose his or her life for transgressing one of these; murder, immorality, kidnapping, or bearing false witness. Only a rasha, a wicked person would violate any of the initial four dibros. The last one, lo sachmod, seems to be something only a tzaddik could fulfill; not to desire objects belonging to his friends. The first four seem to be a list of rules one would read to hardened criminals, while lo sachmod is something that Reb Yisroel Salanter z’tl would discuss in a mussar shmues for tzadikim (spiritual giants).
Controlling our Wants
Several additional questions come to mind:
- How can Hashem command us not to want things? How can the Torah instruct us to control our emotions? If I desire something in my heart, is that not a natural reaction? What can I do to change the way I feel?
- Is it not a part of human nature to want to better our lives? Why is it so harmful to want a desirable object belonging to your neighbor?
The Chinuch (and others) offers a more lenient threshold for this averah than a simple reading would suggest. He explains lo sachmod to mean that you can’t ACT upon your coveting of other people’s possessions. Once you put your desires into action, then you are transgressing this commandment. And, while he surely agrees with the literal meaning of the pasuk – not to covet, the punishment for transgressing does not take place until one converts his desire into action.
The Ibn Ezra maintains that the Torah was addressing the literal meaning of lo sachmod – that we should not desire things that do not belong to us. We need to elevate our level of emunah to the point that we no longer covet things that we do not possess. He offers a mashal (parable) to illustrate his point. He describes a poor villager who saw the princess ride by in her coach one day. As she passed, a thought entered his mind that he would like to marry her. After considering the issue, he realized that it was futile to wish for the princess’s hand in marriage, as she was so unattainable. The Ibn Ezra explains that something that does not belong to you should be as far removed from you, as would be a princess to a simple villager.
The Avi Ezer, in a similar vein, explains that lo sachmod is listed at the end of the Aseres Hadibros to serve as the sum total of all the others. If you are content with what you have and are not envious of others, you will not resort to the averos listed in the other commandments by trying to compensate for your perceived shortfalls.
Jealousy and Envy
During the 15 years that I was an 8th grade rebbi, a talmid would often pose this question to me, “How can the Torah expect me to not want the nice things that my friend has?” In response, I would tell my talmid to begin thinking of two distinct levels; envy and jealousy. Envy is when you want the nice things that others have. Jealousy is wishing that your friends didn’t have them either. I would suggest that he first rid himself of jealousy, and be happy for his friend’s successes. Jealousy corrupts our souls. It could chas v’shalom lead us to a disgruntled life where we are constantly looking at our friends and their possessions. It therefore must be avoided at all costs.
As for ridding oneself of envy, a much more difficult task, I would ask my talmid to think of an expensive, brand-new pair of sneakers that a friend just purchased. You are dressing for a basketball game and you would love to wear them. One slight problem, however. The sneakers are three sizes too large. It may be a great pair; but it is not right for you. (It is interesting to note that the Torah does not forbid you to look at the same pair of sneakers in the store and want to have them. It is only your friend’s items that you are not to covet.)
The Torah lists lo sachmod in the Aseres HaDibros because accepting the fact that Hashem granted each of us the things that are just right for us is an integral portion of our emunah. We need to believe that Hashem provides us with all the things that we need. Accepting this message as a fundamental part of our emunah will allow us to lead happier, more spiritual lives.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
To sign up for Rabbi Horowitz’s weekly emails, please click here.