This week’s Torah portion contains what is probably the most well-known set of rules out there: The ten commandments. Even if you’ve never read any biblical text, it’s pretty likely that you’ve at least heard of these ten rules. Each one is, according to traditional belief, literally set in stone. Together, they’re considered by many to be the basic blueprint for an ethical life.
Some of the rules are very clear cut. We can probably agree that “You shall not murder," and “You shall not steal," are good, solid rules we can get behind.
Others are a little crunchier, harder to digest. The one that’s always gotten me is the tenth, and final, commandment. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife […] or anything that is your neighbor’s,” reads Exodus 20:14.
Generally speaking, I’ve never been much of a rule follower. I find rules confusing, and can usually find at least a handful of reasons rules don’t actually make any sense, so a commandment that applies to the thoughts in my head is a hard sell. How can I fulfill this central tenet of my faith? I can’t promise not to want something that belongs to someone else.
Thinking about this commandment opens up a whole can of worms in my mind. I’m assuming none of the words here are accidental or mistaken, as this is how I was raised to interact with biblical text. So it’s not like God told us to control our desires unintentionally. Which means that He knew that this is an impossible commandment. And yet there it is.
Is the commandment there as something to aspire to? Is the lesson that we can (and should) aspire to impossible heights, even while we know they can’t be reached? Is the lesson that jealousy isn’t the way to success?
It’s interesting to think about envy for a moment, as it inhabits a dual space in our modern Western consciousness. On the one hand, many faiths recognize envy as a central no-no. According to Catholic theology, it’s one of the seven deadly sins. But the other major faith of Western…