The most difficult commandment?

  • Parshas Ki Tetze - Rabbi Yossi Goldman
Revelations bring revolutions. And the greatest revelation in history brought about what is arguably the most far-reaching of all social revolutions. The revelation at Sinai – witnessed not by one lone prophet or a prophet and his close disciples, but by the entire nation of Israel, millions of men, women, and children – changed the world forever. That day was Shavuot, when we heard the voice of G-d thundering down the ten commandments, G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people, and we became His ambassadors to the world at large. Virtually every civilisation defers to the ten commandments as the basic universal principles of morality and ethics.
by RABBI YOSSY GOLDMAN | May 21, 2020

Which would you say is the most difficult of the “big ten” to keep? Would it be the first, the commandment to believe in G-d? Faith doesn’t come as easy to our generation as it did in the days of our grandparents. But children with aged parents suffering ill health who require much attention might argue that the fifth commandment, “Honour your father and mother”, is the most difficult to fulfil properly. Others would say that the fourth commandment, to keep Shabbat, cramps their style more than any other.

While each has a valid point, I would cast my vote for the last one on the list – commandment number 10, “Thou shalt not covet.”

“You shall not covet your friend’s house; you shall not covet your friend’s wife, or his field, servant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend.” Or in simple English: don’t desire his beautiful home, stunning wife, dream business, nifty sports car, or anything else that is his.

Now, it’s one thing not to steal stuff, but not to even be able to desire it? That’s got to be the hardest of all. Really, now, isn’t G-d being somewhat unreasonable with this one? Is He really being realistic? Surely, He doesn’t think we’re angels, I mean, He created us!

So, allow me to do what all good Jews do and try to answer a question with … another question. Why does the text of this commandment first list a variety of specifics: house, wife, field, servant, etc, and then still find it necessary to add the generalisation, “and all that belongs to your friend”?

One beautiful explanation offered by the rabbis is that it teaches us a particularly important life lesson, a lesson which actually makes this difficult commandment much easier to observe. What the Torah is saying is that if, perchance, you should cast your envious eye over your neighbour’s wall, don’t look at the specifics alone. Remember also to look at the overall picture.

Most of us tend to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. But we don’t always consider the full picture, the whole package. So, he’s got a great business and a very healthy balance sheet. But is he healthy? Is his family healthy? His wife looks great at his side when they’re out together, but is she such a pleasure to live with at home? And if he should have health and wealth, does he gain nachas (pride) from his children? Is there, in fact, anybody who has it all?

As the Yiddish proverb goes, everybody has his own pekkel. We each carry a backpack through life, a parcel of problems, our own little bundle of tzorris (trouble). When we are young, we think that difficulties are for “other people”. When we get older, we realise no one is immune. Nobody has it all.

So, if you find yourself coveting your fellow’s whatever, stop for a minute to consider whether you really want “all that is your fellow’s”. When we actually see with our own eyes what the other fellow’s life is all about behind closed doors, what’s really inside his backpack, we will feel grateful for our own lot in life and happily choose our very own pekkel, with all its inherent problems.

There is a famous folk story about a group of villagers who formed a circle, and each one opened his sack, revealing his most precious possessions for all to see. They walked around the circle of open sacks, and everyone had the opportunity to choose whichever one he wanted. Ironically, in the end, each one chose his own.

The almighty is giving us good advice. Be wise enough to realise that you’ve got to look at the whole picture. When we do, this difficult commandment becomes more easily observable. In fact, not only is it sinful to envy what other people have, it’s foolish. Because life is a package deal.

  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the senior rabbi of Sydenham Shul and the president of the SA Rabbinical Association.

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