Parashat Yitro

Love of God and Material Desire

There is a lot to learn from the commandment not to covet.

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According to this view, we ought to live more modestly than average Americans, while definitely living comfortably and meeting our basic material needs. Rabbi Mecklenburg faults consumption as an end in itself, or as a means to self-gratification, which inevitably displaces the space in the cup for God's presence. When people use the physical world as a means to serve God, they will almost certainly consume less because they will realize what their true needs are.

When Rabbi Mecklenberg speaks about coveting, he is addressing Jews living in a pre-industrial, pre-modern, pre-consumer society. Jews living in the first 3000 years of Jewish history might have coveted their neighbor's two-room house, donkey, or field--examples the Torah itself uses.

Yet we live in a radically different time: modern, consumer-oriented, and highly technological. We live in a materialistic world where coveting has become second nature. But instead of coveting donkeys or fields, we covet I-Phones and Jaguars, cruise-ship vacations and second homes.

Global Impact

Closeness to God isn't the only thing that may be lost when a person covets the physical. Rabbi Elchanan Samet of Yeshivat Har Etzion explains that in the view of Philo, a Greco-Jewish philosopher in first century Alexandria, "The family, the land, and all of humankind can ultimately be destroyed as a result of failure to suppress desires for various pleasures."

What effect does one person's individual consumption have on the world at large? A recent study researched how many acres of biologically productive space the average US citizen uses per year, in terms of their food, water, energy, and other consumption. That is, how much land is necessary to support the lifestyle of one American? The estimate was over one hundred and eight acres. And how many acres is the earth believed to be able to produce for each of the 6.5 billion people in the world? Fifteen acres.

This means the average US citizen consumes over seven times what the earth can sustain. Multiply this by hundreds of millions of people and you can see how over-consumption is taking an environmental toll on the planet. A consensus of international scientists--the mainstream in science--state that human-caused global climate change is likely to bring on more severe storms, floods, and droughts, with major impacts on human societies.

The Midrash states that God "caused [Israel] to hear the Ten Commandments since they are the core of the Torah and essence of the mitzvot, and they end with the commandment 'Do not covet,' since all of them depend on [this commandment], to hint that for anyone who fulfills this commandment, it is as if they fulfill the entire Torah."

"Do not covet" is not a little addendum tacked on to the end of the Ten Commandments. Rather, it is one of the central messages of Divine revelation. Finding spiritual satisfaction in the service of the Divine is an important means of weaning oneself from a life of physicality.

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.