Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Walk Article-Yitro




Rabbi David Walk

            Well, we're getting ready for another Super Bowl, version 50 rather than version L.  I guess 50 looks more impressive than 'L'.  Although I'm a football fan with heavy Boston/New England interest and am, therefore, sad, the Super Bowl has appeal beyond the football world.  I'm not talking about the halftime shows, which are way too long.  I'm talking about the commercials.  Super Bowl commercials are a phenomenon unto themselves.  They garner great interest from an audience totally alien to the NFL empire.  The average commercial costs $150,000 a second to air (that's a cool $4.5 mil for the half minute that most run and that's ignoring the production costs), which is more than three times what whole minutes cost for Super Bowl I.  There are numerous web sites which describe and rate the ads throughout the years, and people anticipate them for their entertainment value.  But the beer, auto and fast food companies which sponsor them want us to buy their products.  They generally do this by trying to convince us that we will be better/happier/more popular with their product than without it.  These well designed pieces of product propaganda trigger something in our brains.  Let's call it the 'but I want it' region or the covet gland.

            So, TV ads tend to tickle our desire for things we don't need.  They create the 'need' for a product we never thought of before.  Is this good?  It seems that the Torah doesn't want us to desire things which we don't own.  Isn't that the gist of the tenth commandment:  You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:14).  Therefore, I think it's important to discuss the last of the Ten Commandments. 

In a famous Vanity Fair article (March 31, 2010) the late thinker and writer Christopher Hitchens wrote: 'There are several details that make this perhaps the most questionable of the commandments. Notice also that no specific act is being pronounced as either compulsory (the Sabbath) or forbidden (perjury). Instead, this is the first but not the last introduction in the Bible of the totalitarian concept of 'thought crime.' There are further objections to be made. From the 'left' point of view, how is it moral to prohibit people from regarding the gains of the rich as ill-gotten, or from demanding a fairer distribution of wealth? From the 'right' point of view, why is it wicked to be ambitious and acquisitive? And is not envy a great spur to emulation and competition? But to say you're not allowed to envy your neighbor is absurd.  It's impossible.  And the spirit of envy can lead to ambition and innovation and initiative.  I would say that's an immoral commandment.'

Hitchens makes some sense.  How do we counter this reasoned argument?  The Sages were also concerned with this problem.  The most famous approach to this issue is in Maimonides, who states:  Desire leads to coveting, coveting leads to stealing, and stealing leads to the dark side. For if the owner of the coveted object does not wish to sell, even though he is offered a good price and is entreated to accept, the person who covets the object will come to steal it, as it is written (Micah 2:2), 'They covet fields and then steal them.' And if the owner approaches him with a view to reclaiming his money or preventing the theft, then he will come to murder. Go and learn from the example of Ahab and Navot in Kings II chapter 21 (Laws of Robbery and Lost Articles, 1:11).  Maimonides is explaining that this law is a fence to prevent us from heinous deeds which were perpetrated to acquire objects.

But the Sefer Hachinuch adds that the Torah does indeed want us to focus our thoughts as well as our actions.  It states:  For it is indeed in one's power to restrain himself, his thoughts and his longings, from whatever he wishes. It lies within his free choice and his decision to repel his desire or draw it near, with regard to all matters, as he wishes; he rules his heart and can guide it as he wants (Mitzva 416). 

However, where are the boundaries?  What things should I not desire?  Here's where the English translation 'covet' is so helpful.   The origin of that word is helpful.  It derives (through the old French 'cuveitier') from the Latin cupiditas, which gives us the English word 'cupidity', which denotes greed and avarice.  In modern Hebrew nechmad is nice or desirable, and is positive.  However, the King James translators got it right.  In this context, the Hebrew tachmod, is that nasty cupidity.  It's craving things the other person doesn't want to sell.  Fancying items in the market isn't negative, under normal circumstances.

There's more.  On an ethical level, we would like to prevent ourselves from becoming overly concerned with possessions.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells a marvelous story about Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885).  This great philanthropist of Victorian Britain was asked how much he was worth.  He thought a moment and answered, '200,000 pounds sterling (about $30 million today).'  The man was aghast because he had heard that the tycoon was worth millions.  Sir Moses then explained to him that he did indeed possess millions of pounds, but the question was 'What are you worth?'  Sir Moses responded with the amount of money he had given to charity that year, because a person is only worth what one is willing to share.

Our worth isn't measure by what we possess, because everything belongs to God.   The first commandment reminds us that God created and controls everything.  The tenth commandment is to remind us that God continues to own it all.  We are only caretakers of what is in our possession.  Isn't it foolish to get upset about what we can't have?  Appreciate what you've got, but don't sweat what you haven't.  And enjoy the game!