Hard sell. It’s all around us. Buy this, buy that. This will improve your life, your business, your well-being, your family, your reputation,. Improve your x, buy more y. It’s inescapable.
Who is rich? He who is content with his lot.
Ben Zoma, Pirkeh Avot, ch 4, Mishna 1b
So why are all so given to the seduction of being told that whatever we have, is not enough?
It’s a known fact that the last thing you hear, or the last item on a list, is the thing you are most likely to remember. So the fact that prohibitions against coveting are last on this list indicates that this is something all people really need to remember. Maybe because being told not to envy and covet goes so against our animalistic nature. Some animals don’t covet, and others do. A pack of wild dogs will snarl over a single bone, fight for the attention of the alpha. The individual dog in a pack is only content when it receives the attention of the head of the pack. The alpha actually has to throw the lowest member of the pack a bone in order for it to say to itself, “I have enough.” This is in direct contrast to grazing animals. They move in groups. As a herd, if one grazing land is played out, they will gravitate together to the next. But humans don’t fit either role. We rarely work together for the greater good, neither do we automatically accept our place in the pecking order. We are competitive. Everyone wants the lion’s share.
The ten commandments appear in two places in the Tanaach – first in Parashat Yitro, and again in this week;s Parasha – Va’etchanan. The two lists have variations, each suited to the generation who heard it.
The order of items one shouldn’t covet varies between Yitro and Va’Etchanan. In the Parashat Yitro, the final commandment is:
ולא-תתמד בית רעך לא תחמד אשת רעך ועבדו ואמתו ושורו וחמרו וכל אשר לרעך
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Ex.20:14)
In Va’etcvhanan, we are told:
ולא תתאוה בית רעך שדהו ועבדו ואמתו שורו וחמרו וכל אשר לרעך
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Deut.5:18)
Understanding our competitive nature, here comes the insidious advertisers: buy this and you can have the neighbor’s wife. You want to keep up with the Joneses? No problem, bro. Sign on the dotted line. You can build a bigger house, by a bigger property or a more lucrative business. The prohibition here isn’t against theft. It’s against craving, coveting, desperately wanting what your neighbor has. We aren’t being told not to steal the house. This is much much harder. We are being told to stop acting like animals – don’t even want it. If you don’t want what your neighbor has (gorgeous wife, prime business, life of ease with gardeners and maids running around doing all the dirty work – it won’t cause you to throw what you really need aside, to acquire that which you don’t really need.
In Yitro we are told not to try one-upmanship to acquire better property. In Va’etchanan we are told not to crave or envy the people your neighbor has around him, not to crave his social status.
Between leaving Egypt as slaves, where we had nothing at all, we have suddenly become avaricious. Even in the desert, surrounding by nothing, and utterly dependent upon Divine intervention for food and water which was equally available to all, we still developed competitive urges. Now, on the brink of entering Eretz HaKodesh, we are reminded once more to let that go.
In the desert we saw the ultimate Alpha taking care of us. Once we return to the natural order of things, living in our own cities, we need to retain that bit of wonder and belief – that we will be taken care of. Coveting isn’t necessary. Faith that G-d will provide is.