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With Liberty and Justice: Day 27 – The Tenth Commandment

Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Day 27 The Tenth Commandment: “Do Not Covet Anything Your Neighbor Has”

The Tenth Commandment, because it is divine, goes where no earthly legal system would go. It goes to the source of most of the lawbreaking, evil, and immorality on earth. This last commandment aims to get inside our heads and hearts and reduce our desire for what we do not have, thus strengthening our capacity to follow the other commandments. Unlike the statutes of typical human legal systems, which only hope to regulate behavior, the Tenth Commandment sets a higher standard by aiming to regulate the thoughts and desires that precipitate bad behavior.

Envy of another’s property precedes theft; envy of another’s spouse precedes adultery; envy of another nation’s land or power precedes war; envy precedes political corruption; envy even precedes murder. Perhaps the old adage should be adapted to read, “Envy goeth before a fall,” because it usually does.

Envy is a natural emotion, and controlling it is difficult. God’s laws, like the human legal systems patterned after them, are, as we have discussed, aspirational. They express the way we imperfect humans know we should be and would like to be, but are not quite yet. The laws are hopeful, because they imply that positive change is possible, and more
likely, among people governed by a good legal system.

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the prolific medieval Bible commentator and philosopher, defined the sin of coveting as the illogical desire for something that is, by definition, beyond one’s grasp, and cannot be attained. He offered an allegory designed to liberate a person from the desires prohibited by the Tenth Commandment: A person born into the common classes, for example, would not seriously entertain desire for the daughter of the king, or imagine that marriage to her would be possible. He would thus banish any such thoughts from his mind. So too, all individuals should banish from their thoughts desire for possessions beyond their reach.

Today we would take issue with Ibn Ezra’s analogy. Are we not encouraged to reject artificial limits on personal achievement? Is not every American boy and girl taught to believe that they can grow up to surpass the achievements of their parents, to become president of the United States (or at least be nominated to run for vice president)? Modern sensibilities chafe at the idea that there are worthy goals that are beyond our reach. If social structure, for example, no longer places the “king’s daughter” metaphorically beyond our reach, is the desire itself no longer prohibited? I would say that it is not.

A question regarding real estate transactions was posed to Rabbi Asher Weiss, the head of a rabbinical court and a well-known posek, “decisor of religious law,” in Jerusalem. The argument involved the prohibition of coveting. In his decision, Rabbi Weiss stated that normal business practices that involve behaviors that might appear as “coveting” are most certainly permitted by Jewish law. For  example, the Talmud never prohibited a person from walking into a store, finding an object that he or she desires, and paying the proprietor for it. Coveting, Rabbi Weiss held, is the desire for an object that is not for sale, and the use of unfair, unconventional, inappropriate means to acquire it (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gezeila VaAveida 1:9).

As members of consumerist societies, we know that significant industries – marketing and advertising – exist for the sole purpose of arousing within us the desire to acquire things that are not yet our own. If you are engaged in one of these businesses, do not worry that you are automatically breaching the Tenth Commandment. Rabbinical opinions make clear that normative advertising practices in modern commercial settings encourage us to desire things that are attainable, for a price. Hopefully, it is with money we have, or is, at least, within our credit card limit.

The final cautionary word goes to the wise rabbis who wrote the Ethics of the Fathers: “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot” (Mishna Avot 4:1).