I’ve always been fascinated by the character Veruca Salt in the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie. Veruca wants one of everything. And not only does she want it, whether a golden goose, or an Oompa Loompa, Veruca wants it now. It’s hard to tell if I’m more frustrated by her incessant need to covet that which she doesn’t have or by her father’s constant willingness to acquiesce. Though, at the end of the day, her coveting behavior lands both her and her father in the garbage chute as “bad eggs.”
I get it. It’s natural to covet, especially when we see that someone else has it. Yet, coveting can become unhealthy quickly, often leading to greediness or causing us to become ungrateful for the things that we do have in our lives. Worse still, coveting can frequently mask what’s really going on for us internally, the stuff in our hearts and souls that should instead be the focus of our attention.
Parashat Vaetchanan repeats, in almost identical fashion, the Decalogue (10 pronouncements) that we first read in the Book of Exodus. And while the subtle differences between the two texts are worthy of their own study, I want to focus on coveting more broadly.
The Torah teaches: “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 donkey or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Deuteronomy 5:18). So what’s really at stake in prohibiting the act of coveting?
The 12th-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra is surprised the idea of coveting is even included in the Decalogue. Ibn Ezra asks, “is it even really possible for a person to not covet, especially something which is lovely for the eyes to see? … Indeed, it is human nature.” Ibn Ezra highlights that we all covet the things that we know we will never have, as well as the things that we may one day acquire. Even though it may be a human instinct, there are certain things that will forever be off-limits. For Ibn Ezra, the fear is that our internal wrestling will cause us to outwardly act in a way that could have negative and even damaging consequences.
Perhaps, though, coveting is about more than just what we want on the outside.
In his book “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life,” Israeli writer David Hazony writes that the 10th commandment serves to reflect back on the first nine by focusing on a uniquely human sin, the sin behind all the other sins, namely the sin of insecurity. It “directs our attention to the source of our greed that leads us to take what is not ours. To covet is to have lost our inner peace and our baseline satisfaction with who we are. … you should not allow the things you fear to become demons controlling the core of your psyche. Insecurity leads to many consequences: looking for easy answers rather than searching for moral truth and resorting to dishonesty — unable to trust the validity, legitimacy and efficacy of his/her own truth. And the insecure person will seek to falsely validate self-worth — often at the expense of others” (Hazony, excerpted). The act of coveting becomes a way of avoiding dealing with our own insecurities by distracting ourselves with what others have, rather than what we ourselves might need.
Like Ibn Ezra, I appreciate that the Torah wants to call us on the fact that we are all human while acknowledging that there must be boundaries so that we don’t act inappropriately. Yet, perhaps the Torah is asking us to reflect on what’s going on for each of us on the inside that causes us to want something that belongs to another person.
As we transition out of Tisha B’Av, a time of loss and mourning in Jewish history, let us begin this seven-week journey leading up to the High Holidays by engaging in a little cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our soul, by examining our insecurities. Sometimes our inability to change and grow has less to do with coveting what we don’t have. Instead, it should guide us toward developing a stronger sense of self-worth and self-confidence in who we are and what we are capable of becoming.