Monday, March 1, 2021

Weekly Parsha: Yitro

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One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

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 Ilana Grinblat
Vice President of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Recently, I took the kids skiing at Mountain High, rushed home for Shabbat dinner and then played a board game called Codenames. At bedtime, when saying the Shema, I realized that my favorite moment of the day was not on the ski slopes but rather laughing with the kids at the crazy clues my son gave during the game. I’d driven for hours and paid to ski, but the day’s highlight turned out to be at home, free of charge. 

I recalled the talmudic saying, “From one who runs after greatness, greatness flees. But one who runs away from greatness, greatness follows. One who forces time is forced back by time. One who yields to time finds time standing by one’s side.” I’d chased after joy all day, but only when I yielded to Shabbat did joy find me. 

The Tenth Commandment, “Do not covet,” has puzzled people for centuries. How could the Torah prohibit a feeling that isn’t entirely in our control? Even if a person doesn’t want to covet, he or she may still do so nevertheless. Rabbi Yehiel Michel of Zlachov explained that “you shall not covet” is a “promise: A person who observes the first nine commandments carefully will not covet.” 

The Fourth Commandment, Shabbat, slows us down, so God can catch up to us. In those moments, we don’t feel envy. Instead, we realize, as the great raapper Big Sean said, “The grass ain’t always greener on the other side. It’s greener where you water it.”

Lt. Yoni Troy
Munitions Officer, Israel Defense Forces

When I was 14, I was a short, overweight, Canadian immigrant in a tough Israeli society. Trying to change my self-image — and better defend myself — I began working out. 

As a teenage boy in a media-dominated society, I wanted to look like a Hollywood action hero. Naturally, I fell in love with the change-your-life-in-90-minutes movies — transforming an out-of-shape person into a top-tier athlete through a cool montage with great background music, “Rocky”-style. 

I soon realized how fake these movies really are. By digging deeper, reading about actors’ health regimens, I learned that “Rocky” montages are as realistic as the Force in “Star Wars.” There’s only one way to reach “Rocky”-level success in the real world: hard work. 

When we covet, we look from the outside in, like watching a montage. All the failures, sleepless nights and worries occur off-screen. All that’s set out in front of us is the happy ending. 

For the most part, life does not have shortcuts. Coveting is essentially trying to escape the inevitable path we must take — the path of blood, sweat and tears. 

Usually, envy is accompanied by the complaint that life “isn’t fair.” Instead of complaining about what the other has and what we lack, we should focus on our shortcomings, understand why, roll up our sleeves and get to work. 

The path of the coveter can only lead to discontent, failure and destruction. May we have the strength to stop looking outward, start looking inward, work hard and achieve success.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

The philosophy of wealth in the hegemonic culture surrounding us is one of material excess, coupled with a luxurious attachment to the superfluous and the decadent. As such, it also constitutes a sure recipe for a life of constant dissatisfaction, a chronic sense of illusory paucity and overall existential discontent. 

This is why the final, and the most psychologically demanding, of the Ten Commandments is all about mental and emotional self-mastery and self-restraint. About resisting what political sociologist Robert Gurr called “relative deprivation,” which is the ludicrous sense of envy and false shortage that a person who inhabits a beautiful and spacious condo might experience when beholding his friend’s $20 million mansion in Bel Air. Envy of others is as fierce and as ferocious a psychological affliction as inhabiting hell itself, the Bible teaches us in the Song of Songs. And envy, the midrash in Ethics of the Fathers reminds us, is a psychological pathology that “removes a person from this world,” by breeding chronic emotional embitterment and smallness of soul. 

The Tenth Commandment, which cautions us against the mental pitfalls of self-destructive cravings, is not so much a mitzvah formulated for the sake of heaven, nor for our fellow mortals. Rather, it is there to save each and every one of us, as distinct individuals, from a life of emotional disempowerment and psychological reactivity. From the claws and clutches of a life of lustful passivity, rather than an existence typified by redeeming self-initiative and proactivity.

David Sacks
Torah Podcaster, “Spiritual Tools for an Outrageous World” at Torahonitunes.com

What is jealousy? Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught, “Jealousy is thinking someone else took your portion.” 

In other words, it’s looking at what someone else has and feeling deep down that it really belongs to you. 

What’s the greatest proof that it really belongs to them? The fact that they have it and you don’t. If it was yours, you’d have it. 

If I want to uproot this quality in myself, the first thing I need to know is … 

If I don’t have a Ferrari, it’s not because God ran out of Ferraris. The same goes with children, husbands, wives, jobs, houses and everything else. 

We’re so used to thinking that whatever we want is beneficial for us. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes if we got what we wanted, it would be harmful. 

I experienced this in my life. I wanted to get married very much. And waited years for the blessing. Once I got it, thank God, I looked back and realized that had it come when I asked for it, it would have been a disaster because I wasn’t ready for it. 

Therefore, don’t judge your success by what other people have. God didn’t put us into this world to amass wealth. We’re here to reveal the Oneness of God, and to fix our souls. 

What we want may still be on the way. Meanwhile, know that we will always be given the tools for everything we need in order to accomplish our mission in this world.

Nina Litvak
Writer, accidentaltalmudist.org

The Tenth Commandment — Do not covet — can seem difficult to follow. How can we control our thoughts? Isn’t it what you do that matters, not what’s going on inside your head? An answer to this can be found in the First Commandment, the only other one that addresses our thoughts rather than our actions. 

The First Commandment is to know the Lord our God, who brought us out of slavery in Egypt. Reminding us of God’s role as redeemer encourages us to trust God and thank God, just as our forefathers did when they left Egypt. Ibn Ezra says that when we truly believe that everything we have was apportioned to us by the Holy One, we won’t covet what has been apportioned to someone else. If we trust in God and thank God constantly, the natural result is that we stop comparing ourselves to others. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Who is rich? One who rejoices in his lot.”

When the Tenth Commandment feels challenging, we should refocus on the First Commandment. Fully accepting that our house and our spouse are personalized gifts from a loving God inoculates us against coveting. Indeed, there’s a circularity to the Ten Commandments — if you have trouble with the last one, start back at the first. And if you’re struggling with the first, the Tenth Commandment will help you understand what knowing God means. It means rejoicing in what we have, because it was chosen for us by our loving Creator.

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