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The most difficult commandment

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The elections are over. And now? Is there new hope, or will it be more of the same? Though there may not be an overnight transformation, all agree that we’ve experienced a huge move in the right direction.

And now Shavuot is upon us. We’ll commemorate the giving of the Torah and read about the great revelation at Sinai. With it, of course, comes the world famous 10 commandments.

Which would you say is the most difficult of the “Big 10” to keep? Would it be the first, the mitzvah to believe in G-d? Faith doesn’t come as easily to our generation as it did in the days of our grandparents. Children with aged parents suffering ill health who require much attention might argue that the fifth commandment, “Honour thy father and mother”, is the most difficult. Still others would say that number four, keeping Shabbos, cramps their lifestyle more than any other. Or maybe you’re one of those Jews Jackie Mason referred to when he said, “Every Jew almost killed someone.” Then, number six – not to murder – would be your personal challenge.

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

You shall not covet your friend’s house; or his wife, servant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend. Or in simple English, don’t desire his beautiful home, stunning wife, super-efficient personal assistant, nifty sports car, or anything else that is his.

It’s one thing not to steal the stuff, but not even to desire it? That’s got to be the hardest of all. Really now, is G-d not being somewhat unreasonable with this one? Is this realistic? Surely the Almighty knows we’re not angels!

So, allow me to do what all good Jews do and try to answer a question with another question. As Golda Meir famously once answered a reporter who asked her, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” Her reply? “Why not?”

Why does the text of this commandment first list a variety of specifics – “house, wife, servant” etc, and then still find it necessary to add the generalisation “and all that belongs to your friend”?

One compelling explanation is that it’s to teach us a very important life lesson; a lesson which makes this difficult commandment much easier to live with. What the Torah is saying is that if, perchance, you should cast your envious eye over your neighbour’s fence; don’t look only at the specifics. Remember also to look at the overall picture.

Most people assume the grass to be 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 healthy balance sheet. But is he healthy? Is his family healthy? The attractive 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 have nachas from his children? Is there actually anybody who has it all?

As the Yiddish proverb goes, everybody has his own little pekkel. We each carry a knapsack through life, a parcel of problems, our own little bundle of issues and tzorris. When you’re young, you think difficulties are for “other people”. When you get older, you realise that no-one is immune. Nobody has it all.

There’s a famous folk story of a group of villagers who formed a circle, and everyone opened his own knapsack, revealing the contents for all to see. They walked around the circle of open parcels, and everyone had the opportunity to choose whichever one he liked. In the end, each one chose his own.

I believe it’s more than just a case of “better the devil you know”. 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 knapsack, we feel grateful for our own lot in life and happily choose our very own pekkel, with all its inherent problems.

The Almighty gives 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. Not only is it sinful to envy what other people have; it’s foolish. Because life is a package deal.

So here we are now in post-election South Africa. The ruling party was dealt a severe blow, with its support shrinking dramatically. What does the future hold? We don’t yet know. Do we ever know?

South Africans have been coveting greener pastures around the world for decades. We assume the grass is greener elsewhere. But the truth is that every country and community has its own set of problems. You’ll not find utopia anywhere on our planet.

Since I became rabbi emeritus of Sydenham Shul, my wife and I have been doing a lot of travelling. We’ve found it fascinating to see the sets of challenges facing every community.

Yes, America works. But look at Los Angeles. Once considered a paradise, today, people are leaving California in droves because of its “woke” ideology and ensuing lawlessness. Florida has growing Jewish numbers but the heat in summer is unbearable, and it has to contend with hurricanes. And many other Jewish communities, though larger than our own, don’t have nearly the quality and quantity of Jewish services and facilities that South Africa has to offer. I can think of one with more than 100 000 Jews, including many South Africans, which has barely one kosher restaurant!

We’re blessed with a unique community which is hard to replicate. Just ask the tens of thousands of homesick South Africans around the world.

My wife always reminds people that “the grass is greener on this side!” So, let’s not violate the 10th commandment by being jealous of seemingly better places elsewhere. Enjoy your own pekkel right here. Actually, it’s not a bad one at all.

  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the life rabbi emeritus at Sydenham Shul, and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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