I find the mitzva of “Do not covet” one of the more challenging mitzvoth. It says in Shmot 20:14—
“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.”
We live in a world surrounded by materialistic objects that are beautiful to our eyes and pleasant to our souls. Whether it is objects in nature or whether it is clothing, jewelry or pleasantries for our houses there is a focus on enjoying the beauties of the world. This focus on the beauty begins in the Gan Eden with the trees that G-d creates. It says in Bereshit 2:9—
And the Lord God caused to sprout from the ground every tree pleasant to see and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.
G-d specifically created trees that were beautiful to see. In addition, we are told in many of our mitzvoth to strive to fulfill the mitzvoth in the most beautiful way possible in order to honor the mitzvah such as buying the nicest etrog or setting the table for Shabbat in an elaborate manner. All of these details of the mitzvah focus our attention on the outward appearance of objects. In a Jewish home it is rare not to see elaborate candlesticks for shabbat, a shiny menorah for Chanuka and decorative tallit and tefillin bag no matter what the budget of the family. These are just a few examples of the ways that we honor G-d and his mitzvoth through materialistic objects. These objects speak to us and our senses and show G-d how we can use the beautiful objects in this world to worship him.
There is also an injunctive for a chatan to see his kallah before he agrees to marry her. The Gemara in Kidushin 41A states:
Rav Yehudah in the Rav: A man is forbidden to betroth a woman before he sees her, lest he sees something repulsive in her, and she become loathsome to him, whereas the All-Merciful said, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Why is it so important for a husband to see his wife before they get married? Should we not say that beauty is materialistic and a focus on materialistic objects will only bring us harm? Yet, the gemara was taking into account the nature of man where there is an emphasis on looks and using that character trait to build a stronger relationship between a husband and a wife.
In fact, Rav Hirsch praises this character trait (Rav Hirsch on Breishit 2:9):
It should not be overlooked that here, in the description of the laying-out of the garden for human requirements, נחמד למראה, satisfying the sense of beauty precedes טוב למאכל that of the sense of taste and the requirements for food. It gives justification for, and dedication to, the aesthetic, the sense of appreciating beauty, and this too, may confirm the higher stage designed for Man. The abundance of beauty of every kind which we are given in this, our world, and the fact that – as far as we know – Man is the only creature that has been provided with the ability to enjoy beauty for itself, proves what value the Creator lays on this aesthetic sense for the spiritual-moral calling of Man. Indeed this beauty of nature showered in every form all over the world, and the sense of enjoyment which Man derives from it, is one of the first means to protect Man from complete brutalization. Joy in the beauties of Nature and the beauties of farm, which God has lavished especially on plant-world, forms a bridge towards what is spiritually and morally beautiful. In surroundings where no consideration is given to harmony and beauty, Man too easily grows up wild and unruly. The feeling which gives one jay in harmony and order is related to the feeling for order and harmony in the sphere of morality, so much so that evil and bad appear to us as רע (from רעע to break into pieces. LL.) as something broken, the harmony disturbed, where one single thought no longer rules the whole.
According to Rav Hirsch, the focus on beauty— the appreciation of beauty — is what separates us from the animals. It is what connects the materialistic and the spiritual world. We use the objects that speak to mankind and man’s aesthetic nature to praise G-d. It is also these objects that can lead man astray and turn his focus solely on the objects and more specifically the pursuit of these objects.
There are multiple readings as to what exactly constitutes the prohibition of “Do not covet” . According to the Rambam’s opinion, it is a desire in your heart for other people’s possessions whether it be a house, a maidservant or a wife. It is this desire that will lead you to violate other serious commandments such as do not steal and do not murder. According to the Rambam’s opinion it is quite difficult to ascertain whether or not someone has violated the commandment. Is it a violation if I look at someone’s necklace and say to myself I would like to have a necklace like that? Is it a violation if I walk into my friend’s house and look at the way she decorates her house? Perhaps, my desires for these goods are problematic. On the other hand, maybe they are only a violation when I act on my desires. If I like her necklace and then come back to steal it, only then have I violated the prohibition.
The Ibn Ezra asks – how is it possible to violate a commandment through a thought without any actions? To give an example, in the case where I walk into my friend’s house, I have violated the issur as soon as I say I wish that I had the painting on the wall. In this regard, the prohibition is there to curb our materialistic pursuits. It is protection of the coveter as opposed to the one who has been coveted. It is true that mankind has the ability to enjoy beauty but we need to curb this ability. We need to focus on ourselves and the objects that we own. We need to make sure that the lust after materialistic objects does not become a perpetual pursuit.
In fact the Sefer Hachinuch states the following:
“Do not wonder and ask: But how can it be in one’s power to restrain his heart from longing for riches that he may see in his fellow man’s possession, when he himself is lacking them all? How can a prohibition be given in the Torah about something which man cannot possibly obey?
This matter is not so; none but wicked fools and sinners would speak so. For it is indeed in one’s power to restrain himself, his thoughts and his longings, from whatever he wishes. It lies within his free choice and his decision to repel his desire or draw it near, with regard to all matters, as he wishes; he rules his heart and can guide it as he wants.
No human thought – whether it be small or great, good or evil – is hidden to God, before Whom all secrets are known, Who seeks out the concealed recesses, Who sees all a person’s secret thoughts; nothing is hidden from His eyes. He punishes those who transgress His will IN THEIR HEARTS, and performs kindness until the thousandth generation to those who love Him and devote themselves to His service IN THEIR HEARTS. For there is nothing so good for a man as a good, pure thought, since that is the beginning of all good deeds and their end. And this, it seems, is the significance of the ‘good heart’ which the Sages praise in Avot (2:9).”
Mankind has the ability to control our desires. We can work on ourselves not to constantly be looking at others and the objects that they own. It is difficult to do, as I said in the Beginning, however it is possible.
To some up the idea I will share a story that one of my friends told me. He went to chutz la’aretz for two years for professional training. One night he went to visit his boss who lived in this gorgeous house on the mountain. The house had too many rooms to count, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and acres and acres of land. It was absolutely stunning. As the boss is showing off the house, he points to the house on the other hill, which happened to be another teacher in the program. His boss then said, yes my house is beautiful, but the other house on the hill, his other teacher’s house — he has a view of the sea.
Mankind is in a perpetual pursuit of materialistic and beautiful objects. We can use these objects to connect the physical and the spiritual world. It is this appreciation of beauty that will separate us from the animals. We have to, however, be careful, to limit our pursuit of these objects.