Commentary on Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23
The Ten Commandments given in Parashat Yitro culminate with the command not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:14).” Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, a 19th century Torah commentator, explores this commandment, offering a Jewish approach to spiritual living and material consumption.
Rabbi Mecklenberg relates this verse to another commandment: “you shall love the Eternal One your God with all your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5).” Why, Rabbi Mecklenberg asks, would it not have been sufficient to write “You shall love God… with your heart”? What is the significance of “all your heart”?
My Cup Overfloweth
The Torah emphasizes loving God with all of one’s heart, Rabbi Mecklenberg explains, to teach that a person should be totally committed to serving God, and not split between love of the Eternal and love of physical pleasures. When a person is wholly in love with the Infinite One, that person will not feel an attraction to material indulgence.
Rabbi Mecklenburg uses the metaphor of a cup, filled to the brim, with no room for anything else–representing a person full of love of God, with no room for pure physicality. Such an individual feels so satiated in his or her core that the desire for gratification from the physical world totally evaporates.
Love of God can keep physical lust at bay, and filling one’s cup with connection to God can prevent over-attachment to physical pleasures. That’s why, in our Torah portion, God ends the Ten Commandments with “Do not covet.” After all, how can one stand before God in love after indulging in the most base physical desires–for comfort, money, food, and sexual pleasure?
In addition, if a person prefers to indulge always in the next available pleasure, he or she will have little patience for the spiritual work and sacrifice that often only bring satisfaction after much time and commitment.
Rabbi Mecklenburg’s teaching is not only relevant for an unabashed hedonist, but also for someone who works to be close to God while enjoying a range of modern consumer products–an IPod, a nice stereo, a fancy restaurant meal, the latest designer clothes. His teachings do not seem to say that a Divine-aware life demands living like an ascetic or in poverty. Rather, a Jew should consume as a means to serving God.
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.
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.
The commands “Love God with all your heart'” and “Do not covet” offer an alternative to a high consumption, unsustainable future. We can begin to repair the world by improving ourselves. God offers no better way to do that than by filling our hearts with the love and light of the Divine.
Suggested Action Items:
Think about what fills your metaphorical cup, and whether you want to keep everything inside it.
Identify one thing that you planned to buy but do not need, and replace it with something that will bring you closer to God.
Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: YAH-kove or YAH-ah-kove, Origin: Hebrew, Jacob, one of the Torah’s three patriarchs.