Parashat Yitro 5778

Faith, Morality, and Free Choice
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

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 that had never occurred before nor since.  It was a public revelation the entire nation – men and women – could see with the core being the Ten Commandments that include all the basic tenets of Judaism.

Indeed, anyone who reads the Ten Commandments sees that they are foundational commandments that deal both with 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 “lo tachmod”, you shall not covet. Every Jew is forbidden from desiring an object belonging to someone else. Isn’t this a prohibition that is just too difficult? A prohibition forbidding us from doing 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? And – 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 the prohibition of “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, Cordoba 1138 – Cairo 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.” (Mishna Torah, Hilchot Gzela Va’aveda, Chapter 1). Based on this commentary, the Torah wishes to prevent us from committing robbery or murder and therefore it forbids the emotional process that could potentially lead to them.
But can a person stop himself from coveting? Can we control our desires?
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (commentator, philosopher, and poet, Tudela 1089 – London 1164) was one of the philosophers who struggled with these questions. He answered them with a comparison 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.
And 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 the Ibn Ezra, the prohibition of “You shall not covet” is the result of deep faith in God. If you believe that you do not deserve something which is not yours, you will not covet it!
One of the sages of the Middle Ages whose identity is unknown to us wrote Sefer HaChinuch – 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 of “You shall not covet” is not surprising. Indeed, man with his free choice can even control his desires; to “control” - meaning – not only not to act on them, but to nullify them if they are negative.
The prohibition of “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 internal world.

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