“Can the Torah Forbid Feelings that are Part of Normal Human Emotions?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, is one of the two places in the Chumash where the Ten Commandments are recorded.

The tenth commandment, found in Exodus 20:14, states: “Lo tach’mod bayt rei’eh’cha, lo tach’mod ai’shet re’eh’cha, v’av’do, va’ama’to, v’shoro, va’cha’mo’ro, v’chol asher l’rei’eh’cha,” you shall not covet your fellowman’s house, you shall not covet your fellowman’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellowman.

The Rabbi’s ask, how can the Torah forbid something which is, seemingly, so much part of human nature–jealousy and covetous desires of someone else’s possessions? In response to this issue, the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Spanish commentator 1089c-1164) offers the following example. While a peasant farmer might covet his neighbor’s daughter, he would never think of coveting the Queen, because it’s simply out of the realm of possibility.

This analogy could be made even stronger by saying that a person who’s looking for love and affection wouldn’t under normal circumstances covet his neighbor’s cow or pet chimpanzee, because it’s simply out of the realm of possibility, it just doesn’t apply. At least for someone normal!

To my mind, Judaism introduces a bold and revolutionary new concept in this commandment against covetous desires. The Torah in effect insists that human beings are in control of, or can control, their thoughts and desires.

An example of this principle can be found in the Jewish laws that pertain to mourning. While Jewish law certainly acknowledges that a person who suffers a grievous death in the family will naturally feel abandoned by G-d, and is consequently freed from the performance of mitzvot until the burial, Jewish law also requires that once the burial takes place, the bereaved mourner must work his or her way back to fulfillment of all mitzvot. We see in this instance, that Jewish law arbitrarily “commands” a person, despite the dire circumstance, to overcome personal emotions and begin to participate in a minyan, to say blessings, to thank G-d for health, even though his/her emotional mood is most likely, hardly inclined to recite these prayers or perform religious rituals. Clearly, the implication is that Judaism maintains that people are in control of their emotions, and that the human being has the capacity to overcome even tragic bereavement. Similarly, the Torah requires the person with covetous desires to overcome or suppress those prohibited feelings.

Perhaps, this concept of prohibiting evil thoughts and emotions is so hard to assimilate because much of contemporary thinking conveys the opposite message, that our improper behavior is often excusable because of rage, provocation or taunting. Jewish law, on the other hand, maintains, that even if a person has a natural disposition towards forbidden actions, like bloodlust or prohibited sexual behavior, those emotions must be kept in check. If they are to be expressed at all, they must be done in a sublimated and socially acceptable manner. So, the Talmud suggests that a person with an abundance of bloodlust may become a surgeon, a mohel, or a ritual slaughterer.

The Chassidic approach to the issue of not coveting is quite fascinating. The Torah, in the portion of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, declares: “V’ahavta ayt Hashem eh’lo’kecha,” and you shall love the Lord your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Why does the verse speak of love in this portion where the Torah deals with the acceptance of belief in G-d? Shouldn’t it rather say, “And you shall believe in the Lord, the G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”? Chassidic tradition says that love is appropriate in the Shema, because love opens vistas that would otherwise be sealed and inaccessible. And if a person expresses love of G-d, belief will soon come.

The Chassidim argue even further. They maintain that if a person’s heart is “filled” with love of G-d, there is simply no room for alien thoughts and feelings. That, they explain, is the way the temptation inherent in the Torah prohibition of Lo tach’mod, thou shall not covet, can be overcome. Fill your heart with love of G-d, argue the Chassidim–then there will be no room for any alien covetous desires.

While this Chassidic rationale is but a metaphor, the implications are very real. “Thou shall not covet.” Love G-d, and there will be no covetous desires!

May you be blessed.