The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 25 August 2018 / 14 Elul 5778

That's Nice, Can I Have It?

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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“You shall not desire your fellow’s house.” (Parshat Va’etchanan, Devarim 5:18)

As a father, I find it heartwarming that my son and daughter (who are very close in age) always try to make sure that they each get exactly the same amount of cake, candy, or whatever is being served. Sometimes they even make sure to put aside a share for the other if a treat is served in the other’s absence.

I guess, from their perspective, it is only fair. If my wife and I love them both the same, then we ought to express that love in equal amounts. Of course I realize that at some point we will have to explain to them that people don’t always get exactly the same thing.

In Parshat Va’etchanan we are commanded not to desire things that belong to other people. Now, one might ask: Is it really fair to ask this of a person? How is a poor man expected to react when he sees his neighbor down the road living in a deluxe mansion, with several expensive cars and even more bank accounts? Is he not allowed to want some of those things for himself? What harm is there in simply having a desire for something? Yet, the Torah forbids this from us.

In Jewish philosophy we are taught that desire is one of the most powerful drives found within human nature. Unlike the power of sight, hearing, or even thinking, which functions in one particular part of the body, desire encompasses one’s entire being. Desires lead to actions, and when left unchecked they can easily grow out of control, causing a person to behave in ways unimaginable.

We can now appreciate why the Torah forbids one to desire another’s belongings. As a preemptive measure the Torah forces a person to face his inner desires before they get out of control. If one avoids this mitzvah he may come to try to attain the objects he desires. This is the sin of coveting. If an attempt to purchase the object one covets fails, one may likely resort to persuasion, and eventually the threat of force. The world is full of hate, envy, theft, and even murder, all in order to attain things that belong to others. People have been murdered for watches, jewelry, even for a pair of sneakers. With one look at the news today, we can see the prophetic vision of the Torah, which understands the essence of human nature.

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