“Can the Torah Forbid Feelings that are Part of Normal Human Emotions?”
(Updated and revised from Yitro 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, is one of the two places in the Torah where the Ten Commandments are recorded. The second text of the Ten Commandments is found in parashat Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 5:6-18.

The tenth commandment, that appears in Exodus 20:14, states: לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ, לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ, וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרו,ֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ , you shall not covet your fellow’s house, you shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.

The rabbis ask, how can the Torah forbid something which is, seemingly, so much a part of human nature–jealousy, and covetous desires of another’s possessions? In response, the Ibn Ezra presents the following parable. While a peasant farmer might covet his neighbor’s daughter, he would never conceive of coveting the Queen, because it is simply out of the realm of possibility.

This analogy could be made even stronger by saying that a person who is looking for romantic love and affection would not, under normal circumstances, covet his neighbor’s cow or dog, because it is simply out of the realm of reality. Under normal circumstances, romantic love and affection are not directed toward animals!

With the prohibition against covetous desires, Judaism introduces a bold and revolutionary concept. The Torah, in effect, declares that human beings are in control of, or can control, their intimate thoughts and desires.

An example of this principle can be found in the Jewish laws of mourning. Jewish law certainly acknowledges that those who experience the death of a close relative will naturally feel bereft, abandoned by G-d, and are consequently freed from the performance of mitzvot until the burial. Jewish law, however, 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 demands a person, despite the terribly painful circumstance, to overcome great personal agony and begin to participate in a minyan, to say blessings, to thank G-d for health, even though his/her emotional mood is hardly inclined to recite these prayers or perform religious rituals. Jewish law even mandates that there be no public mourning on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, when mourning is cancelled. The implication is clear: Judaism maintains that people can control their emotions, and that they have the capacity to overcome their feelings even in tragic circumstances. Similarly, the Torah requires the person with covetous desires to overcome or suppress those prohibited thoughts.

Perhaps, the concept of prohibiting evil thoughts and emotions is hard to accept 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 a person with a natural disposition toward forbidden actions, such as bloodlust or prohibited sexual behavior, must keep those emotions in check. If they are to be expressed at all, they must be done in a sublimated and socially-acceptable manner. In fact, the Talmud suggests (Tractate Shabbat 156a) that a person with an abundance of bloodlust may express those forbidden feelings by becoming a surgeon, a mohel, or a ritual slaughterer.

The Chassidic approach to the issue of not coveting is quite different, but no less fascinating. The Torah, in the portion of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 declares: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ , and you shall love the L-rd your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Why does the verse speak of “loving” G-d in this portion where the Torah emphasizes the acceptance of belief in G-d? Would it not be more appropriate to say, “And you shall believe in the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”? Chassidic tradition maintains that love is entirely appropriate in the context of the Shema, since love opens vistas that would otherwise be sealed and inaccessible. A person who expresses intense love of G-d, will inevitably find belief.

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

On Sunday night and Monday, February 9th and 10th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.