Friday, August 4, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’etkhanan 5777–This Man’s Art and That Man’s Scope (revisited, revised, and expanded)

Whoops – last week passed without a musing - an unintentional hiatus. My apologies. Things just simply got away from me. A shame, too, because I had a nice theme planned for parashat D’varim this year. Guess you’ll have to wait another year. I’ve listed my musings for D’varim at the end after those for Va’etkhanan. Do take a look at them – especially the one I have shared many times over – “The Promise.”

This week's parasha, Va'etkhanan, gives me an opportunity to revisit the aseret habdibrot, the ten commandments. There's one commandment, in particular, that, for some unknown reason, popped into my head as something I wanted to muse upon this week. That commandment is the tenth, the one commandment (depending on how one views the first commandment) that is (apparently) focused on thought more than deed or action.

וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֨א תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֗ךָ שָׂדֵ֜הוּ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ֙ שׁוֹר֣וֹ וַחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ׃

V'lo takhmod eyshet reyekha, v'lo titaveh beyt reyakha sadeihu v'avdo v'amato, shoro, v'khamoro, v'khol asher l'reyakha.

And you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, and you shall not crave the house of your neighbor, his field, or his male slave or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.

The first thing to note is that this construction in D'varim is changed from the construction in Exodus 20:14

לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ׃

Lo takhmod beyt reyakha lo takhmod eyshet reyakha v'avdo, v'amato v'shoro v'khamoro v'kol asher l'reyakha

You shall not covet the house of your neighbor, you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.

In Exodus, the order is house, wife, etc. Here in D'varim, the order is wife, house, etc. In addition, the verse begins with a conjunctive vav, making this commandment part of a string beginning with murder and continuing "and not commit adultery...and not steal...and not bear false witness..and not covet. In Exodus, each commandment begins with the simple negative particle "Lo" with no connecting vav. Is this treatment in D’varim the biblical equivalent of a “yadda, yadda, yadda?” A subtle protest or chafing at the restrictions?

Finally, the text in D'varim introduces a second verb into the sentence. In Exodus, the verb "takhmod" תַחְמֹ֖ד based on the root khet-mem-dalet is used twice. Here in D'varim, the verb takhmod is used first (in reference to the wife) and the verb titaveh  תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה based on the root "alef-vav-hey" precedes the remainder of the things one should not "crave" or “desire.”

While scholars disagree on the exact translations of these two verbs, there is some consensus that the alef-vav-hey root form means desire in a "delighting in" sense, whereas the root  khet-mem-dalet  means desire in an unhealthy "inclination" sense. Some scholars equate "alef-vav-hey" with desires and inclinations of the nefesh, that is, they are natural inclinations and desires. "Khet-mem-dalet" is more often associated with selfish, undisciplined, desire - perhaps a more "over the top."

One wonders how this plays into the whole rabbinical construct about how and when men interact with women. The distinct separation (and placing first) of the commandment to not inappropriately desire your neighbor's wife seen oddly juxtaposed with the Exodus construct, in which the house comes first, yet women, slaves, beasts of burden et al are all things in which we must not delight to the point of covetousness. The neighbor's wife is placed in a distinct class.

Coveting, say some of the commentators, invariably leads to action. One must convince oneself that the coveted object is utterly beyond acquisition so that one’s mind will stop considering it. (See Sforno on Exodus 20:14)

In what some may deem a misogynist framework, some commentators argue that no male could not be desirous of a woman, so here the Torah uniquely separates out the commandment to not covet a neighbor’s wife because it assumes all men will find her desirable. It’s the biblical equivalent of “keep it in your pants, buddy.” (See Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:14)

The general rabbinic spin on this is that desire will ultimately lead to coveting, so that this version of the commandment in Deuteronomy is meant to extend the fence, as it were, so that a lesser level of behavior, i.e. desiring is prohibited lest it lead to coveting. (See the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 20:14)

Desire is wishful thinking. Coveting is “over the top” desire with a hint of envy and an inclination to maliciousness.

While all this is fascinating, what drove me to muse upon this text in 2009, and brings it to mind again here in 2017 is more of a global observation that our society is so strongly structured to encourage not just desire, but actual covetousness, that, for some, the very idea of not coveting may seem anathema, and, at the very least, a difficult, if not impossible commandment to fulfill. We are certainly seeing a full flowering of the ideals of capitalism nigh unto the depths of plutocracy (though I suspect the latter term is more applicable than the first, as I am not entirely sure the present administration represents true ideal capitalism, but rather an unbridled form for little respect for consequences.)

Perhaps these are socialist or Marxist ideas floating to the surface, yet I cannot help but wonder how much the idea of "not coveting" has been used as a tool to keep the oppressed happy. It's all well and good to not covet when one lives the good life. It's another story when one is struggling. Those without look at those who have, and might not be able to help but wonder if all of those who have got there fairly, and are deserving of what they have. (I have often thought that one of the factors that works against truly practical socialism or even communism in the world is the random and inequitable distribution of the world’s natural resources. Our natural selfishness causes us to hoard what we have and be reluctant to share it with others, even as the reality of their having what we don’t is obvious. A global economy and global sharing is the only logical way to do things, but so many fear it. As unnatural (i.e. man-made/acquired) resources like capital and wealth accumulate in an inequitable distribution, even a capitalist, free-market world is imperiled.

In some ways, I think it is good and important that here in Deuteronomy the Torah reminds us of what it failed to say in Exodus – that desire and coveting and not the same thing, but that both are suspect.

The plutocrats have a problem here. For their system to work, people must desire or crave things. However, if their desire or craving tips over into coveting, that becomes a threat to them. However, I think that many plutocrats have failed to see the problem, blinded by their own greed.

We are bombarded constantly with advertising that is designed to get us to crave, to desire, and yes, even to covet. Might this bombardment be an underlying cause in increasing crime? If so, then there is another argument for teaching people to not covet. Still, how many of the rich get richer by insuring that the poor are taught to be content with what they have? Does desire invariably lead to coveting? On the one hand, it seems that many people are able to feel desirous of something without their desire becoming coveting. Some people do seem to be able to control their impulses. On the other hand…

Allow me a little diversion here. I have a pet peeve. I detest laws that have been enacted in many states which make it a violation to be “going slower in the passing lane” thus leading to people abiding by the speed limit being ticketed for getting in the way of those deliberately and purposefully exceeding the speed limit. I’m still trying to figure out in which universe this idea makes sense. Such laws only empower people to break the law with impunity – it canonizes their desire to ignore the rules. Yes, you can argue that this is merely a matter of community norms. However, isn’t the answer to that to change the laws to match the community norms so that obeying them doesn’t get you in trouble? My point is, that while, to some degree, we are able to control our desires, we are living in a time when, at least in some cases, individual desires are being allowed to trump the community’s laws. (See, it’s just normal word when used in that fashion.) But enough digression.

Certainly coveting things has great potential for causing problems. It can certainly lead to envy and jealousness, and those often lead to other bad things. It can cause people to be very unhappy with their own situations. Is the same true for desiring? Does that inevitably lead to coveting?

Desire, perhaps, can be assuaged not just through self-control, but through some little reward. As the Bard put it:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

Ironically, however, Shakespeare's solution to his downcast state is to think happily on his love.

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I've little doubt that mixed in with Shakespeare's love is a bit of desire to delight in the pleasures of his love. Maybe the rabbis were on to something. Yet here, merely the thought of love is enough to assuage feelings of material desire. Is this a clue for how we can all deal with our desires, and how we can prevent them from becoming coveting?

Some rabbis and commentators have suggested that the real lesson in the commandment to not covet (or even desire) is to recognize that what we see of our neighbor's lives might not be the whole story. It's just another way of saying "be careful of what you wish for" and "always look at the big picture." You might desire your neighbors ass, but it may turn out to be lazy, stubborn, prone to illness or becoming lame. Same with his house. Who knows what problems you might be acquiring when you covet and trick someone out of their home so you might possess it?

is there ever a time and place when coveting is the right thing to do? When covetousness is the right way to feel? I'm hard pressed to find one, although can imagine a scenario in which covetousness can spur an oppressed minority to seek their full rights and share. Desire can, in a "positive value of yetzer hara" sort of way, spur one to try harder, be more ambitious, etc. Is coveting the same, or is it a bridge too far?  Is even simple desire entirely the wrong motivation to succeed? I suspect that it is, however, given the values of modern society, I'm afraid that those who seek success without some element of desire are going to find it rough going. Those who seek success through coveting, I fear, are far too often successful these days. (Isn’t a leverage buy out,or an uninvited corporate take-over an example of this? Surely, using real estate for money-laundering is an example of where coveting leads.)

In the musical based on the movie "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" there is a song in which the ambitious younger con-man sings of his desire for "Great Big Stuff." This desire spurs him into participating in a complicated high-class scam (i.e. he covets,) though in the end, he and his older, more experienced partner turn out to have been scammed by their own mark, who turns out to be an even better con-artist. Still, the older con-artist sings how it was still a blast for them, and doesn't seem to put out by this reversal of (potential) fortune. In the end, all three decide to work together. Proving that crime does pay? One way of looking at the story is that the younger con-artist perhaps comes to learn that it isn't the "stuff" at all, but the thrill of the game? A subtle anti-coveting lesson or not?

I desire. We all desire. I will reluctantly admit to coveting at least at some times in my life. I suspect most of us tip over the line from desire to coveting once in a  while. I do think I can say that, at this point in my life, I don't covet all that often or all that much, and even desire wanes at times (no, get your head out of the gutter, that’s not what I meant.) Is it because I have taken the commandment to heart, or because I have learned from experience that coveting is a waste? I suspect the latter. Would my life be even better now if, from the very start, I had taken the commandment to not covet into my heart? I wish I could say for certain that this is so, but I'm still not certain.

In our world today, I see far too much desire that has tipped over into coveting. It concerns me deeply. How and where can we find the balance to both have desires (which can be a useful thing) and control them, and most especially, to keep them from becoming coveting?

I’d like to add this wonderful quote from A.J. Heschel’s “The Sabbath”

Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.  In a moment of eternity, while the taste of redemption was still fresh to the former slaves, the people of Israel were given the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments. In its beginning and end, the Decalogue deals with the liberty of man. The first Word—I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage— reminds him that his outer liberty was given to him by God, and the tenth Word— Thou shalt not covet!—reminds him that he himself must achieve his inner liberty.

So what are "lo takhmod" and "lo titaveh" really about? Something to ponder this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2017 (portions ©2009) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Va'etkhanan 5774 - Sometimes A Cigar... (Revised from 5764)
Va'etkhanan 5773-The Promise (Redux & Revised 5759ff)
Va'etkhanan 5772 - Redux & Revised 5758 - The Promise
Va'etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5771 - Comfort
Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope
Va'etchanan 5764--Sometimes A Cigar...
Va'etchanan 5758-63-66-67-The promise

Musings on D’varim

D'varim 5775 - Kumu V'Ivru (Revised 5760)
D'varim/Hazon 5774 - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists (Redux 5766)
D'varim 5773 - The Pea in Og's Bed
D'varim 5772 - Revised 5762 - L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D'varim-Shabbat Hazon 5771/5766  - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists
D'varim 5764--Eleven Days
D'varim 5763--Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up
D'varim 5760-1-Kumu v'Ivru

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