Va’etchanan: Happy With One’s Lot

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

 
Torah Portion: Va’etchanan
 
Greetings! 
 
This week’s Torah portion has some important texts and laws, including the S’hma and a review of the Ten Commandments. What’s often interesting about texts reviewed or restated in D’varim/ Deuteronomy is subtle changes in wording or emphasis from earlier verses and books of the Torah. In this case, the 10th commandment, “do not covet”, one word leaps out as different from the first iteration of the Ten Commandments back in Exodus: 
 
Sh’mot/ Exodus:: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (20:14)
 
D’varim: 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. (5:18)
 
Note that the first version begins with property and goes to people and animals, and the second version begins with “wife” and goes on to list house, field, servants and then animals. The more interesting difference is the second verb in the second version: tit’aveh means crave or have a hunger for something. In Exodus, only one verb is used: tachmod, meaning  to covet or want something. 
 
Maimonides, as quoted in Sefer HaHinnuch, distinguishes between “coveting” and “craving” this way: the first is taking something or pressuring somebody to sell something that they don’t want to sell. Thus, for Maimonides, “coveting” is an action to acquire, with money or not, the property of another. “Craving” or “hungering” after something is a purely internal experience, just wanting something that you don’t have. 
 
One classic explanation is that we need to watch our thoughts lest they turn into actions; Sefer HaHinnuch goes so far as to say that “craving” will lead to “coveting” which will lead to robbery ! On the other hand, there are plenty of mitzvot which forbid us to do something without an additional mitzvah not to think about it. Thus, I’m not sure that preventing robbery is the primary goal of this commandment. Rather, it seems to me that the point of distinguishing “coveting” and “craving” is to push us to train our thoughts towards satisfaction rather than acquisition.
 
I don’t know about anybody else, but I find it very easy to become focused on what I want, rather than what I have; I’m probably the guy all the advertising geniuses want to target most. YetHinnuch also points out that to a certain extent, our thoughts of what we desire are under our control, and we can, if we choose, be less distracted by the material things which glitter around us. As Pirke Avot asks: 
 
Who is the one who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion. (4:1)
 
Shabbat is itself an exercise in resisting the acquisitive urge; a day without commerce reminds us of the difference between wants and needs. That, to me, is the point of warning against “craving” the property of others; not so we won’t turn into robbers, but rather because we should learn to be happy because of who we are, who we are with, and to whom we give, and not merely because of what we own. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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