Theo Coben - Shabbat YItro - January 26, 2019

Shabbat Shalom.

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For all of you who came out to see me today: 1) Thank you; 2) I apologize, for many of you have traveled far and wide only to be underwhelmed by the presence of a 4’8” parrot squawk out some language none of us really understand. While I cannot control my short stature and unbearably high voice, I can, however, break down the story told this morning into (almost) comprehensible English.

My portion, Yitro, is actually a text many of you are familiar with - it contains the Ten Commandments. The prophet Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai, where he retells them to the anxious people he leads out of Egypt. These commandments cover basic rules and morals that current laws and societal norms are based on. Today, I’d like to focus on the commandment that addresses thought and feeling in the midst of nine other commandments that primarily address action and behavior - “Thou shalt not covet”

But how would anyone know you have coveted? Your friends, family, strangers, not even God will know whether or not you have coveted, only yourself. So what place does a commandment about “thinking” have in a “doing” religion?

The Torah says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s”

First, understanding the commandment requires a definition for what coveting is. Coveting can be defined as a driven desire for something solely because someone else has it. In this sense, the expression “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” may be coveting in some ways. A desire for green grass is a desire for green grass, but a desire for grass greener than someone else’s (enough to drive a desire to do something destructive) is coveting. Theft, murder, adultery are all effects of coveting, as they are destructive acts that may arise from coveting.

The commandments  “do not commit perjury” and “do not commit murder,” for example, are, dare I say it, set in stone in our minds. While there are many varied interpretations one can make about these commandments, I think all of us know what it means to not kill someone. Murdering or adultery is a behavior - an action that to an extent can be controlled and enforced.

Many commentators on this commandment mention the idea of satisfaction. A few commentaries I like come from Pirke Avot and from the Talmud, two texts that discuss religious morality and law. These texts address satisfaction and its connection to the tenth commandment. The Talmud states “Three things broaden the spirit of a person: a fine home, a fine spouse, and fine possessions.”

This statement is ambiguous - “fine” could mean many things. “Fine” could be okay, or not bad, or could be better but it doesn’t matter all that much. But “fine” could also be good, great, extraordinary, or of great wealth. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the dictionary definition of “fine” is in this case. Maybe “fine” is just whatever the spirit is satisfied with. Either way, the constant use of “fine” highlights self-discipline and the dangers of wanting too much.

    I like this quote as well from Pirke Avot, by ben Zoma, a wise rabbi from the second century CE: “Who is considered wealthy? One who is satisfied with their portion.”

    This quote breaks down what coveting really is. Do you really desire your neighbor’s ox because you want their ox, or do you desire internal satisfaction from having their ox? “Wealthy” also addresses what wealth really is. Is wealth material, like gold or silver, or is wealth internal, your satisfaction for what you have? I believe that the latter is correct, because you may always want more gold even if you already have more than enough or are considered “wealthy” by others. Additionally, “their portion” implies that everyone is entitled to something, but not everyone is entitled to the same things. But wealth is possible in any quantity or quality. In simpler terms, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

    The Spanish philosopher Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish philosophers of all time, has this interpretation in the Mishneh Torah. “Let a person not say: ‘envy, lust, honor and similar things are evil ways and remove a person from the world,’ and that one should separate oneself from them and go to the opposite extreme, not to eat meat, drink wine, marry, live in a nice house or dress in fine clothes, but dress only in sackcloth and hard wool like the idolatrous priests do. This too is an evil way and one who follows it is a sinner.”

In simpler terms, abstaining from anything that isn’t already forbidden is a sin in and of itself. Another danger is that you might be too self-disciplined and dissuade yourself from taking advantage of great opportunities that may make you wealthier. As a result you could feel deprived and become unsatisfied with what you have. Just because abiding by “thou shalt not covet” requires internal discipline and your own perspective and perception, vowing to never covet should not steer you away from these opportunities. For example, if a friend offers to take you somewhere you have always wanted to visit, if you refuse the offer on account of not wanting to covet, essentially you have sinned in a different way. By rejecting all of the good things given to you, you show ungratefulness for what you have been offered, which offends your friend. Also, you are rejecting an offer to broaden your perspective and perception, which defeats the purpose of the commandment in the first place.

Coveting is a heightened desire for satisfaction. If you aren’t satisfied with your ox, naturally you would desire to have a better ox that you are satisfied with. There is nothing wrong with wanting a better ox, as long as you don’t desire your neighbor’s ox specifically. Desire isn’t unhealthy or unnatural. Most of the time desire is actually constructive, not destructive, as in the case of coveting. If you want a better ox, instead of stealing your neighbor’s ox (a destructive outcome), this desire can be channeled productively by training or breeding stronger oxen. But the truth is, it’s important to realize there will always something better than what you have. Even desire, separate from coveting, always wanting, can become destructive to your spirit at a certain point. The purpose of this commandment is to make you stop and question your desire for something better. Instead, we can look within and change how we view what you have and what we view as satisfactory.

So what place does the tenth commandment has in Judaism? Simply to make you happier and wealthier! After all, everyone wants to be wealthy in spirit, and by cutting coveting out of your life, you will be.

Yitro can teach us gratitude, and as part of my commitment to service, I’d like to shine a light on something that all of us take for granted: a voice. I’ve partnered with VocaliD, a program that many of you are now familiar with, that allows people who suffer from speechlessness to have a voice in the world. They might be in need as a result of physical conditions such as ALS or Parkinson’s. By recording yourself reading, VocaliD’s software creates a unique voice for someone in need. I organized a voice drive, similar to a blood drive, where participants can join together to donate their voices online. This drive is still open until March 18th. What I learned from this project is that no matter how much you desire for greater, better things, someone will always value the essential things that you have. Additionally, the tenth commandment focuses so much on taking, wanting, desiring things as an individual. Let us keep in mind that taking requires someone or something to give, and being a giver can broaden your spirit, perspective, and satisfaction as well.

    Next, I would like to thank everyone who has made my Bar Mitzvah possible. First, the entire HBT congregation for accepting and supporting not only me but also every member of the congregation. Thank you to Tracy Rich, my amazing tutor and fellow cat-lover. Thank you to My Chaverim School class, for enduring my horrendous puns. Also, thank you to Hillary, Moreno, and Benita for helping organize this entire event and making sure the temple and school run smoothly. I’m thankful for all of my friends and teachers who have taught me so much in my life intellectually and socially. Additionally, thank you to my brilliant cousins for keeping my life lively and exciting, as well as my aunts and uncles for great conversations and experiences. Thank you to my grandparents, for all of the wisdom and unconditional love you have given to me. Thank you, Nathaniel and Rena, my bro and sis, for being my partners in crime since day one. Thank you especially to my mom and dad for putting up with our shenanigans, and of course, you know, like raising me and stuff. You both have always supported me, helped me whenever I have fallen and made sure I would fly high like a squeaky parrot. I love you to the end of the earth. Lastly, thank you to Rabbi Barbara, who has assisted me throughout my various (and I mean various) stages of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Thank you all very much.

    Shabbat Shalom.

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Posted on January 29, 2019 .