The Decalogue in the Torah, Blog 4, Coveting: The Sin That Leads To Many Other Sins

We shall not covet our neighbor’s wife, house, ox, donkey or anything else of his, and find three more reasons the other woman should not dance.

Selfishness sours relationships.  Selfishness destroys marriages.  So it is fitting we examine the Commandment forbidding coveting that which belongs to our neighbor.  Coveting breeds selfishness.

Why study backwards through the Decalogue?  Why start with the commandment against coveting, when the Torah and most commentators start with the commandment to Fear Elohim, to Love Adonoy our G_d?  We will start with coveting because we too easily forget we cannot Love G_d without loving our neighbor, and by selflessly loving our neighbor we can Love G_d.

The first book of the Torah has but a handful of Noahide laws.  Instead Genesis contains stories of how we should treat our loved ones, but mostly story after story about how we shouldn’t treat them.  Perhaps the lesson here is what does it matter if we study the Torah day and night if we treat those around us badly, if their lives are not better because we are in them?

Our world is far different from the world of Jacob and Joseph.  We are not hospitable, we are not generous, we do not welcome strangers into our home.  We lock our doors from all who live outside.  Today if someone you meet is hot and sweaty the last thing you want to do is invite them in your house for dinner.

But it was not always so.  In the hot desert days of old when men rode by camel rather than by car, long hot days with no air conditioning, days when nothing but the evening breeze could cool the sweltering heat, when inns were few and crude, then godly men would share their tent with you and kill their calf for you to feast.

In the commentary to Rashi in Genesis 18 the Sages teach that “it is greater to invite travelers into your house than to greet the Divine Presence.”  When Abraham sees the men who are angels, he runs to meet them, bows before them, begs them stay and rest so he can wash their feet and kill his choice tender calf for them to eat.  You may argue that Abraham knew they were angels, but then Lot urges them to stay so he can wash their feet and make a feast for them also.  Who among us treats all men with such eager kindness, expecting visiting angels among those we meet who are hot and sweaty?

We also remember the servant of Abraham when he went to well of his master’s family to seek a wife for his son Isaac.  He asked Adonoy for a sign for the woman who be a fitting wife for a patriarch, and it was simply a woman who when he asked her for a drink offered to provide water for his camels too.  Not only did Rebekah offer him water to drink, she did it quickly, and then she said:

I will also draw water for your camels,

Until they will have finished drinking.

Genesis 24:19

They had so little, but were so eager to share what they had.  But we live in the most prosperous and peaceful times in history, but it is not enough.  We are selfish.  We want what our neighbor has.  We think first of ourselves, what we want, what will make us happy.  We are jealous, we scheme, we find fault, we plot.

The Mitzvah against coveting appears in slightly different form in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In Exodus you are forbidden to covet your neighbor’s house, and you are forbidden to covet his wife.  In Deuteronomy you are forbidden to covet your neighbor’s wife, and are forbidden to desire his house.  In Deuteronomy you cannot covet his field, and in both versions you cannot covet or desire his slaves, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that is his neighbor.  If the tablets were written today, your neighbor’s car would probably be on the list.

Ramban suggests that coveting your neighbor’s wife is listed first in Deuteronomy because it is the greatest sin of all.  Coveting your neighbor’s husband is just as much a sin.

In Exodus we are told first not to covet our neighbor’s house.  Then we are told not to covet his wife, his slave, his maid, his ox or his donkey, and anything else.  Does Exodus progress from the highest creature to the lowest creature?  Do we cheapen that which we covet?  Is Adonoy warning us that when we covet another man’s wife, we see her not as a person but as a trophy to be won?  Can trophies be loved?

The first sin involved coveting.  Eve in Genesis 3 “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was tempting to the eyes, and that the Tree (of knowledge of good and evil) was tempting to the eyes, and that the tree was appealing as a means of obtaining wisdom.  She took of the fruit and she ate, and she also gave it to her husband, and he ate.”

What followed the eating of this precious apple?  “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked.”  Shame followed the first coveting.  Shame followed the knowledge of evil.

And Adonai walked in the garden, calling out to the man, “Where are you?”  Rashi says “G_d knew where he was.  It was only to engage in conversation with him so that he not be too bewildered to repent.”  Man blamed woman, woman blamed the snake, and both were banished from the garden.

In the sin of the next generation Cain coveted Adonoy’s blessing of the sacrifice of his brother Abel.  What was Adonoy’s warning to Abel in Genesis 4?

“Why are you angry?

Why are you depressed?

Is this not so:

if you improve, there is forgiveness,

but if you do not improve,

sin rests at the entrance.

Its desire is unto you,

but you can master it.”

Rashi adds that sin rests at the entrance of your grave.

Again Adonoy walks the earth, asking Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”  Rashi says Adonoy wants to engage “him in casual conversation so that he may repent and say: ‘I killed him and have sinned to You.’”  Even the search for Adonoy’s blessing is cheapened by the coveting.  Rather than repent, Cain lies, “I know not, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Perhaps if he had confessed he would have been restored, but Cain, too, is banished, after Adonoy cries out the cry that heaven and earth cry out when we sin irreversible sins: “What have you done?”

So Cain murders Abel because he covets the favor Adonoy showed Abel, favor that would have been his also if he had only sincerely asked for it.  The enemy would rather we not seek Adonoy’s favor, but failing in that he seeks to twist even the most noble of pursuits into a vulgar gesture.[1]

[1] For those works cited that are organized by either Mitzvah or by verses, page references are unnecessary.
All Scripture quotations are from the Metsudah Chumash.
The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi, Five Volume Set, translated and/or annotated by Avrohom Davis, Hachum Kornfeld, and Abraham Walzer, (New York, Metsuda Publications, 1999-2002),
Rambam Maimonides, The Commandments, translated by Rabbi C Chavel, Volume One, Positive Commandments, Volume Two, Negative Commandments (New York: The Soncino Press, 1967)
Ramban Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah, Five Volume Set, translated and annotated by Rabbi C Chavel (New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1976)
Ronald Eisenberg, The 613 Mitzvot, A Contemporary Guide to the Commandments of Judaism (Rockville, MD: Schreiber Publishing, 2005)
Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: Harper Collins, 2001)

About Jonah Fischer 6 Articles
The Torah mandates that you should write out the precepts of the Torah at least once in your life so you can learn it in your heart, so this hopefully will achieve that objective.

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