This is the week G‑d gives the Torah to the Jewish people. The reading of the great revelation at Sinai occurs in this Parshah, and with it come of course the world-famous Ten Commandments.
Which would you say is the most difficult of the Big Ten to keep? Would it be the first, the mitzvah to believe in G‑d? Faith doesn’t come as easy to our generation as it did in the days of our grandparents. Children with aged parents suffering ill health and who require much attention might argue that the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” is the most difficult to properly fulfill. Still others would say that the fourth commandment, to keep Shabbat, cramps their lifestyle more than any other.
While each has a valid point, personally I would cast my vote for the last one on the list—commandment number 10: Thou Shalt Not Covet.
“You shall not covet your friend’s house; you shall not covet your friend’s wife, or his field, servant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend.” Or in simple English: don’t desire his beautiful home, stunning wife, dream job, nifty sports car, or anything else that is his.
It’s one thing not to steal the stuff; but not even to desire it? That’s got to be the hardest of all. Really, now, isn’t G‑d being somewhat unreasonable with this one? Is He being realistic? Surely He doesn’t think we’re angels—He created us!
So, allow me do what all good Jews do and try to answer a question with . . . another question. Why does the text of this commandment first list a variety of specifics—house, wife, field, servant, etc.—and then still find it necessary to add the generalization “and all that belongs to your friend”?
One beautiful explanation offered by the rabbis is that this comes to teach us a very important lesson for life—a lesson which actually makes this difficult commandment much easier to carry out. What the Torah is saying is that if perchance you should cast your envious eye over your neighbor’s fence, don’t look only at the specifics. Remember to also look at the overall picture.
Most of us tend to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. But we don’t always consider the full picture, the whole package. So, he’s got a great business and a very healthy balance sheet. But is he healthy? Is his family healthy? His wife looks great at his side when they’re out together, but is she such a pleasure to live with at home? And if he should have health and wealth, does he have nachat from his children? Is there anybody who has it all?
Every now and then, I find out something about someone whom I thought I knew well that reminds me of this lesson. A fellow who seemed to be on top of the world suddenly has the carpet pulled out from under his feet, and in an instant is himself in need. Another guy of whom I never really thought that highly turns out to be an amazing father, raising the most fantastic kids.
As the Yiddish proverb goes, everybody has his own pekkel. We each carry a backpack through life, a parcel of problems, our own little bundle of tzoris. When we are young, we think that difficulties are for “other people.” When we get older we realize that no one is immune. Nobody has it all.
So, if you find yourself coveting your fellow’s whatever, stop for a minute to concider whether you really want “all that is your fellow’s.” When we actually see with our own eyes what the other fellow’s life is all about behind closed doors, what’s really inside his backpack, we will feel grateful for our own lot in life and happily choose our very own pekkel, with all its inherent problems.
There is a famous folk story about a group of villagers who formed a circle, and each individual opened his sack, revealing his most precious possessions for all to see. They walked around the circle of open sacks, and everyone had the opportunity to choose whichever one he wanted. In the end, each one chose his own.
The Almighty is giving us good advice. Be wise enough to realize that you’ve got to look at the whole picture. When we do, this difficult commandment becomes more easily observable. Not only is it sinful to envy what other people have, it’s foolish. Because life is a package deal.