Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, February 3, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Woody Allen is in the news again and not because he is making movies worth watching. Charges of child molestation by his adopted daughter have arisen again in the wake of the MeToo movement. In the wake of the original charges over 25 years ago, he was interviewed by Walter Isaacson then of Time magazine. The charges were made in the midst of a custody battle between Allen and his former lover Mia Farrow after Allen had begun an affair with Soon Yi Previn, one of Farrows adopted children before she began her relationship with Allen. In the interview, Isaacson asks, Even though Soon Yi was not your adopted daughter, did you not feel that it would be disruptive for your biological son and your adopted children who saw Soon Yi as a sister, for their dad to date their sister?
To which Allen uttered the famous line paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, “The Heart wants what it wants. It isn’t logical”.
The heart may want what it wants but how does desiring something justify it? Isn’t desiring something that is not yours in itself a transgression of the last of the 10 commandments? Thou shalt not covet?
On the other hand, Allen’s point is how can one incriminate desire, an emotion?
How should we understand this mitzvah? Can it be that the Torah actually would prohibit a feeling, an emotion? The wording of the commandment here in Exodus is Lo Tachmod Bet Ray-echa Lo Tachmod Eshet ray-echa… You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male or female slave, or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. The version of the 10 commandments in Deuteronomy is a little different. There it begins “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. Lo Tachmod Eshet ray-echa Lo Titaveh bet ray-echa. 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. The word used in Exodus is exclusively ‘chamad’ to covet, in Deuteronomy both ‘chamad’ and ‘titaveh’ to crave is used. Does the Torah prohibit desire?
Jesus in his sermon on the Mount would say yes. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with craving (ἐπιθυμῆσαι) has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The word that Jesus uses for craving is the same word the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, uses for covet. If this is the meaning of the Hebrew term, just having an emotional desire for something that is not yours, would be a transgression.
Philo, the important Greek Jewish thinker from Alexandria Egypt before the common era, understood the prohibition as intellectual. “For all the passions of the soul are formidable, exciting and agitating it contrary to nature… but this desire alone derives its origin from ourselves, and is wholly voluntary.” Coveting what another has can be controlled and thus is different from other emotions because it is based on an idea, namely, that something that is not yours should be yours.
The Zohar, the mystical Jewish text from the 14th century, would seem to agree in that this feeling of wanting something not yours derives from ingratitude: It is written You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”, and it is written concerning creation, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him”. Your wife is fitting for you; therefore do not covet your friend’s wife.” (on Leviticus 11-12)
But an early midrashic commentary, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael, took a different path to understanding this commandment.
“Perhaps even the mere expressing of one’s desire [for the neighbor’s things] in words is also meant [and thus a transgression of this commandment not to covet]? But [another use of the word ‘covet’ in Deuteronomy says]: “You shall consign the images of (pagan) gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves” (Deut 7:25). Just as in that context, only the carrying out of one’s desire into practice is forbidden, so also here, it is forbidden only to carry out the desire into practice.”
Professor Leonard Greenspoon points out that in other examples in the Bible the use of the term ‘chamad’ covet means to act on a desire.
In Exodus 34 the Israelite is commanded to make a pilgrimage 3 times a year to the Tabernacle. The problem is that if the Israelite farmer has to make the trek, how can he be sure that no one will steal his land while he is gone all that time? God assures the farmer, “I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times a year.” Coveting means stealing it away.
The Prophet Micah makes even clearer the process by which coveting becomes action; Ah, those who contemplate iniquity and design evil on their beds; when morning dawns, they do it, for they have the power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away. They defraud men of their homes, and people of their land.” (2:1)
This is picked up by another early midrash that uses the other term titaaveh that is found in the Deuteronomic version of the 10 Commandments.
(Here in Exodus the Torah prohibits) [“Do not covet” Lo Tachmod] – but later it says, “do not crave the house of your fellow” Lo Titaveh (Deut 5:18). This means that a person violates [the prohibition of craving for one thing and the prohibition] of coveting for another. (That is there are two different prohibitions) So what is the prohibited craving? One who says: “I wish…” Coveting is one who acts concretely to take [the objects].
And How do we know that a person who craves, (who transgresses ‘lo titaveh’) will [ultimately come to covet (and transgress ‘lo tachmod’? For it says:] “Do not crave…” and “do not covet” in (the Deuteronomy version of the 10 Commandments). How do we know that one who covets will end up [robbing? For the prophet Micah warned: “They coveted] fields and took them” (Micah 2:2). A thousand years later in Moses Maimonides Code of Jewish Law he codified this by saying, that desiring what one does not have is a transgression but one without a legal consequence. But acting on it – that is transgressing lo tachmod – do not covet is punishable by lashes.
How do we legislate emotions? We can’t. It is impossible to punish one for having certain feelings. It may not be healthy, it may be an act of ingratitude, it may be a waste of energy, but the Torah is most concerned with behavior.
We see this in other mitzvot. Love your neighbor as yourself. How can the Torah command me to love someone? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his wonderful Code of Jewish Ethics points out that loving another person means behaving in a loving and concerned way towards the other. Acting in concrete ways is what it means to love. Maimonides in his Code of Law defines this mitzvah as doing acts such as praising a person, feeding them if they are in need of food, comforting a mourner, helping someone out financially.
The very word tzedakah, to give financial help, is different at its core meaning than charity. Charity comes from caritas meaning love of humanity. Tzedakah means acts of righteousness. If you don’t love humanity, even if you don’t love or even like your neighbor, you are still required to give financial assistance. In doing so you are fulfilling the mitzvah of love.
The heart may want what it wants. But the concern is that such feelings may lead to behaviors which are immoral or amoral. The lesson of the mitzvah of “lo tachmod” Thou shalt not covet is not to punish or induce guilt in a person for having inappropriate feelings or emotions. The goal is to direct our desires away from things which belong to others and to encourage us to strive for healthy desires which lead to righteous and moral actions.