Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Covet: does that include everything? / Yitro

Rudyard Kipling wrote: “There is no jealousy in the grave.” (The Eye of Allah, 1926) But between now and then, there’s plenty of jealousy. Torah warns us: the prohibition against coveting is the last of the Ten Commandments, articulated first in Parshat Yitro of Exodus.

Do not covet (lo tachmod) your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox and his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:14)

Jealousy is a natural human tendency that leads to overblown acquisition and consumption. Concerning Planet Earth, Henry George wrote in 1879 in Progress and Poverty (book IV, chapter 2):

It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space. If the bread and beef above decks seem to grow scarce, we but open a hatch and there is a new supply, of which before we never dreamed. And very great command over the services of others comes to those who as the hatches are opened are permitted to say, "This is mine!"

Back in the first chapter of Genesis we read:

God blessed [human beings] and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Henry George reflects the manner in which this verse has been read far too long by far too many people as license to regard earth’s resources as an inexhaustible pantry for people’s pleasures.

And indeed, “This is mine!” has become the rallying cry of our acquisitive and consumptive society. Economist Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993) of the University of Michigan in 1966 described this attitude in economic terms as the “Cowboy Economy” and contrasted it with the “Spaceman Economy.”

… I am tempted to call the open economy the "cowboy economy," the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the "spaceman" economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system…

(The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, presented at the Sixth Resources for the Future Forum on Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 1966.[1])

The Cowboy Economy is driven by the desire for acquisition. The Spaceman  Economy is moderated by awareness of limited resources.

If “This is mine!” is the rallying cry of our consumer-driven society, then “You need it and we can provide it” is the rallying cry of marketers who daily spend their time and energy convincing us that we are unhappy because we lack what we don’t need. Spending some time with Torah’s tenth commandment can help us set aright the equilibrium that jealousy so easily disturbs.

Commentators have long debated the meaning of tachmod (“covet”). Does it mean to desire out of jealousy? Or perhaps it means to act on feelings of jealousy? Is it an emotion or a behavior? We might argue that the prohibitions against adultery and theft already cover the act of acquisition, but Rambam (Moses Maimonides) provides a more nuanced understanding:

When you desire a neighbor’s object and pressure him heavily until he gives it to you, even if your pressure was friendly and even if you pay handsomely for it, you have violated the prohibition.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gezeilah v’Aveidah)

Rambam also notes that the version of the tenth commandment found in Deuteronomy employs a second verb:

You shall not covet (lo tachmod) your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave (lo tit’a’veh) your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male and female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Deuteronomy 5:18)

In Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Rambam distinguishes between tachmod (“covet”) and tit’a’veh (“crave”): tachmod is desire leading to sinful action (such as theft and exploitation); and tit’a’veh is a matter of the heart. The one who tricked his neighbor into giving up one of his possessions has violated both prohibitions.

The Ra’avad (R. Avraham b. David of Posquieres, ~1125-1198) challenges Rambam’s view, pointing out that it conflicts with the Talmud’s ruling in Baba Batra:

R. Huna said: If a man consents to sell something through fear of physical violence, the sale is nonetheless valid. Why so? Because whenever a man sells, it is under compulsion [i.e., we may assume he needs cash quickly] and even so the sale is valid. But should we not differentiate between self-generated compulsion [i.e. the need for quick cash] and external compulsion [i.e. avoiding physical violence]? (B.Baba Batra 47b)

The Gemara concludes that we may presume that even under coercion and threat, the seller eventually made up his mind and intended to sell; therefore the sale is valid. To my thinking this is very dicey territory. The decision may well be to avoid torture, not to sell property. The sale is merely a means to avoiding physical violence.

The Talmud understands how far people will go in their quest to acquire what they covet. That tendency is in each of us. It’s easy to condemn the advertising industry, as Jeremy Bernstein does with ease:

If there were a multi-billion-dollar industry in our society whose sole purpose was to get you to murder, commit adultery, steal, or perjure yourself, we might wonder about its legitimacy. These transgressions are forbidden by commandments No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 [of the Ten Commandments], proclaimed for the second time in the Torah in Deuteronomy 5:17. Yet regarding the next one on the list, No. 10, there is just such an industry - the advertising industry. It is designed to get you to want things you don’t have, to covet. (The Jerusalem Report, August 13, 2001)

But do we not have responsibility to monitor our feelings and control our behavior? This is precisely what the tenth commandment warns against: rein in your desires; don’t let them reign over you. Perhaps the answer is to consider carefully whether what we covet is legitimately a need, and whether in the long term it will promote our happiness and well-being.

In considering what we truly need, on one end of the spectrum, an answer is suggested by Leo Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Require?” (which James Joyce considered the greatest short story ever written). Its protagonist, Pahom, is not satisfied with the size of the plot of land he owns. He finds ways to enlarge his holdings, but is never fully satisfied. Peasants with much land to sell make this deal with him: for the sum of 1000 rubles, and in the time between sunup and sundown, if Pahom walks the perimeter of as much land as he wants, and arrives back at the starting point before the sun sets, he owns the land. If he fails to return by sunset, he forfeits both land and money. Pahom makes a mad dash to acquire as much land as possible, arriving back at the starting point just at the moment of sunset, but so utterly worn out that he collapses and dies. He is buried in a grave six feet long — a plot of land that answers the question posed by the title of the story.

Isn’t there something between an enormous swath of land and a burial plot? Parents of young children are well acquainted with the importance of distinguishing between “want” and “need” in the minds of their children. How often do parents intone the mantra, “You want that, but you don’t need it.” Would that we could all internalize that mantra!

It turns that there is much we crave — and covet when we see that others have it and we do not — that is not only a legitimate need, but a healthy one. What is more, we don’t have to take it away from others to acquire it for ourselves. We all want to be noticed, for our value to be affirmed, and to be loved. No amount of land, money, or possessions can compensate for that. So how do we become noticed, valued, and loved? It’s really pretty simple: notice, value, and love others. There is great truth to the adage that “What goes around comes around.” Send out into the world what you want to receive.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


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