Mazel tov to Caleb on his becoming Bar Mitzvah! Here is his d’var torah, on Parashat Yitro
Welcome, Shabbat shalom.
This week’s Torah portion is called Yitro, Exodus 18 through 20. The Israelites have just left Egypt, and crossed the Red Sea, and they are in the wilderness. In the first part of the portion, Moses meets up with his father-in-law Jethro (His Hebrew name is Yitro, thus the name of the portion). Jethro notices that Moses is carrying too much responsibility by solving everyone’s little arguments and disputes. Jethro suggests that Moses should have other people solve the Israelites’ minor disputes and bring only the big problems to Moses. Moses follows Jethro’s advice.
Meanwhile, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites to prepare for God to come down to Mount Sinai to talk to the people. The people follow God’s wishes and wait for God to come down. When God comes down in a theatrical show of thunder, lighting and the trembling of the mountain, God makes a set of rules that are now known as the ten commandments.
I will read the ten commandments in my Torah portion today. When I read through the commandments, what stuck out to me was that with just four of them, there is a clear line between fulfilling the commandment and not fulfilling it. These are:
- Thou shalt not kill
- Thou shalt not steal
- Thou shalt not commit adultery and
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
I mean, killing or stealing or lying – those are actions. You do them and bad things happen.
With five others, you could break them by action BUT you could also break them just in your mind. These are:
- Honor thy father and thy mother
- You shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not have any false idols.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain and
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
So, for example, you could pray to another god in your head — that’s breaking the law in your mind — or you could make a statue and bow to it – that’s real action. Honor thy father and thy mother is an interesting one: If you interpret “honor” as “obey,” then not following their orders (to come home at 10 pm or brush your teeth or do your homework) is violating the commandment. But if honor is respecting them, then it is much harder to tell on the outside if you don’t follow the commandment.
To compare, there is no way you can kill someone or steal from someone in your mind.
Also, sometimes you just can’t control your feelings. What if you have a super mean parent? You have to respect and honor him or her? That doesn’t seem fair or right. And that doesn’t seem like a law that necessarily creates a good society. Not like do not kill or do not steal which are important for functioning societies.
This brings us to the last commandment which I have a lot of trouble with: Thou shalt not covet. You aren’t supposed to covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his servants, his animals or basically anything else. This commandment has totally to do with thinking. There’s no action involved with coveting. And for the most part, coveting doesn’t make society fall apart – which means it shouldn’t be a law.
Of course, the action that comes from coveting could be bad for society. For example, if you covet your neighbor’s car, then that could lead to stealing it. Coveting your neighbor’s wife could lead to adultery, etc.
On the other hand, if you covet your neighbor’s car, you could feel inspired to go out and make money to buy your own car. The rabbis say that every individual is born with two leanings: yetzer ra, the bad inclination, and yetzer tov, the good inclination. Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman said, “Were it not for the impulse to do bad (yetzer ra), a person would not build a house, take a spouse, beget children or engage in commerce.” So desires and coveting can be good. But what happens when that car and house become a source of jealousy, bad relationships, obsession or crime? In other words, when the yetzer ra takes over?
So coveting can be a good or a bad thought, and it all depends on the action that comes out of it.
If you are thinking that maybe the translation of the Hebrew text is wrong and the commandment is not referring to “coveting” at all, that is understandable. I also had this thought and found a posting online by Dr. Joel Hoffman called “The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting.” The Hebrew word “chamad” is the word that is is translated as “covet.” (Listen for me to chant “Lo tachmod” several times in my portion — tachmod is a version of chamad). Dr. Hoffman says that chamad is actually used elsewhere in the Torah and Prophets and seems to mean something closer to “take.” He says the commandment should read “Do not take… your neighbor’s house, wife, etc.” This could make sense, but there are already commandments for these things: Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery. Why would God repeat himself?
However, Dr. Hoffman might actually have been interpreting “covet” not as stealing but as almost the moment before stealing — uncontrollably wanting something. Here’s the difference: You might want someone else’s chocolate bar, but you can quickly forget about it and move on. In the other extreme, you steal the chocolate bar. Dr. Hoffman might be saying “coveting” the bar would be that extreme feeling of wanting it that comes right before stealing. Some might say that feeling is a sin – and that’s why it is a commandment. The problem is that I still can’t believe that a feeling, not matter how strong or evil, is wrong. The action is what is wrong.
I’m interested to know what all of you think about this — “can a feeling alone, even a strong negative feeling, be a sin?” You’ll have a chance in a minute to respond. A few more points before that though.
You may know that there are really 613 commandments, not just ten, and few of them are about feeling. Here are some examples:
- Not to cherish hatred in one’s heart
- Not to bear a grudge
- To rejoice on the festivals, and
- That those engaged in warfare shall not fear their enemies nor be panic-stricken by them during battle
A number of Jewish commentators have something to say about commandments that have to do with feeling. Both Rashi and Maimonides say that the commandment is actually about a action that results from the feeling. But most commentators do admit that the commandment is against bad thinking, not acting. They think we should be able to control our thoughts. Ibn Ezra, a medieval rabbinic commentator, said you can control your feelings with religious training – in other words, your mind has the capacity to control the heart. Pirkei Avot 4:1 says “Who is strong? One who conquers his desires..” Nechama Leibowitz, a modern Bible scholar, wrote: “It is possible to train oneself not only not to commit adultery or not to steal but also not to covet and desire things not his own.” So, even if you can’t be punished for the feeling, a strong feeling cannot be an excuse for doing something that is wrong.
The rabbis realized the coveting commandment was different from the others. One of them believed that if you follow all the other nine commandments, you will have no desire for what anyone else possesses. The reverse is true as well. If you’re satisfied with life you won’t covet and won’t have any reason to murder, steal or work on the Sabbath because you don’t want more than you have. Again from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”
Regardless of all these interpretations, I still am not convinced that coveting is bad. The truth is that we covet constantly. We may not covet uncontrollably constantly but we even do that – and still do not steal, etc. The true test is if you can covet and avoid doing something because it is bad.
I feel fortunate that I’m not a person who covets very much. I’m not sure why that is — probably partly my personality — but maybe it’s because I’m basically happy and have everything I need in life, and I realize that not everybody does.
For part of my mitzvah project, I made a contribution to Detroit Police Athletic League (called Detroit PAL), which gives thousands of Detroit kids access to clean and safe places to play sports and also access to positive adult mentors. This winter, more than 1600 Detroit children will participate in Detroit PAL basketball and volleyball programs. Living in Ann Arbor, we have a lot of opportunities to play sports, and we have families that can help support that. Not everyone is so fortunate.
So back to my questions for you:
- First, can a feeling alone, even a strong, negative feeling, be a sin? Or should commandments be reserved for actions?
- The other question that came up in my dvar Torah is — do you think it’s possible not to covet? What would that take?