Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


Shopping with kids was always an ordeal. Talk about impulse buying, they want things much faster than a parent or grandparent can say, 'No!'  And, of course, kids aren't alone. Studies show that 77% of shoppers claim to have made impulse purchases and merchants do everything in their power to encourage these tendencies. Ever notice that super markets never put milk, bread and fruit too close together? That's so that shoppers must traverse the whole store to get at these staples, hopefully, for them, filling their shopping carts along the route. How can we battle this budget breaking? First, leave the kids home!! Next, carefully, prepare a list of needs, and then stick to it.  Would reading the Tenth Commandment help? Let's try to figure that out. 

For this article, I'm going to ignore the many arguments about how to count the Ten Commandment and just accept the standard list as presented in the movie and most synagogue architecture. So, the Tenth goes like this: 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 (Shmot 20:14). Of course, there's the immediate problem of what 'covet' or in Hebrew TACHMOD mean. Some English translations help out by opting for 'desire' or 'want', but those don't sound as ominous as 'covet'. The dictionary defines 'covet' as 'yearn for' or 'crave', and comes from the Latin word 'cupiditas' which is more akin to greed or avarice, giving us 'cupidity' in modern English. 

The Hebrew root CHEMED has a positive connotation. It's first use in Tanach describes the permitted fruit trees in the Garden of Eden, Breishit 2:9, and is variously translated as pleasing, desirable, and beautiful. 

But what is the legal definition of LO TACHMOD?  Reb Avraham Ibn Ezra presents a logical problem. How can the Torah prohibit us from desiring objects which are beautiful to our eyes and hearts? This seems unreasonable, if not impossible. He gives a parable to help, but most authorities finesse the problem with legal explanations, Maimonides in the lead. 

The Rambam writes: We are prohibited to occupy our thoughts with our desire for other people's property...If one sees a fine object that belongs to another, and allows his thoughts to gain control over him...and he hatches a plot to acquire it by coaxing and pushing the owner to sell it or trade it, even for something of greater value, should he reach his goal, he transgresses LO TACMOD (Sefer Hamitzvot, negative precepts #266). In other words, one only has transgressed if a plot has been hatched to acquire the object. Appreciation of beauty has not been prohibited. Maimonides ends the explanation by referring to the story of Achav (Ahab, before he started chasing whales, Melachim 1, chapter 21). This king of Israel eventually killed Navot for his desirable piece of real estate. Our most famous story of how possessions can possess us. 

In his Laws of Theft, the Rambam specifies that the transgression only becomes operative if the owner has no interest in selling the object (1:9). So, even though we shouldn't become obsessed with 'things', there is no prohibition to want more, and shop til we drop. It's a good thing that consumerism is permitted, because Jews basically invented mass marketing, from Macy's and Gimbel's a century ago to Bed, Bath and Beyond and Century 21 today. 

However, I think that there is an important message imbedded in this mitzva, which I had never noticed until I heard a shiur by Rav Zvi Hersh Weinreb, in which he pointed out a quote in a great source, which had previously escaped my notice.  Nachmanides wrote an essay (found in volume 2 of Mosad Rav Kook's Kitvei Ramban) in which he extrapolates all 613 mitzvot from the Ten Commandments. It's quite a feat, actually, viewing these Top Ten as ten categories of mitzvot. In his comments on this mitzva, the Ramban notes: From this negative precept a positive concept can be derived. Just as we are enjoined to not desire the wife of another, we are simultaneously being informed that we should have deep desire (CHEMDA) for our own spouse. 

This is a very beautiful concept. It is healthy and positive to be deeply passionate with our spouses. It is equally important to love our own spouse as it is to control ourselves vis a vis another's. What's the most dangerous idea? That the grass is greener in another's yard. The famous and ancient Japanese proverb can be the bane of one's existence, until you find out that the other guy's grass is Astro Turf. Why do we pine for snowy landscapes in July, and dream of sandy beaches in the dead of winter? 

The solution to the 'grass is greener' syndrome is usually quite simple. We don't work hard enough on appreciating what we have. Whether we're considering possessions, accomplishments or relationships, it's often easier to project that others have it better than to try and improve our lot. Grass (lawn variety, that is) in this old adage is a metaphor for so many things in life, that just need more care and attention to be truly amazing. 

Too often, we only realize how wonderful our 'grass' is when others display envy of us. We humans are funny that way. 

This idea can be also be applied to the Jewish nation. When Shaul was being considered for king, Shmuel referred to him as the 'CHEMDA of all Israel (1 Shmuel 9:20). This is translated as the desire of Israel or the focus of Israel. In any case, the emotion was positive and good. 

William James, in his Principles of Psychology emphasized focusing on nurturing what we have rather than comparing and contrasting it to what others have. This is the positive energy which the Ramban found in our commandment. Nachmanides agrees, 'There's no place like home!'