Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: V'etchanan



   
             
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The Proper Path

By Michael Chessen

     The Torah portion of V'etchanan includes a reiteration (albeit with a few fairly slight changes) of the famous "Ten Commandments" which we first read in Exodus. This actually makes for the fourth of four "groups of ten" which we encounter in the Five Books of Moses: at time's beginning, God created the world by way of ten utterances, Abraham later had to endure ten tests of his faith, and God visited ten plagues upon the Egyptians. Rabbinical sages have drawn parallels between these four sets of tens, each item holding parallel significance to its chronologically corresponding item in all of the other sets. And it is common among all four sets that the tenth and climactic item is the most meaningful of its group. Abraham's tenth and final test was the binding of Isaac and the tenth plague was the death of the first born. The tenth commandment, however, is "Thou shalt not covet", commonly understood as a prohibition against envy. Could it be that this prohibition outweighs those which prohibit adultery and murder?

     Leaving aside the idea of parallel importance, a look into the Talmud reveals that we perhaps do not even understand the plain meaning of "Thou shalt not covet". On page 75 of the tractate of Baba Batra we learn that "every man is burned by his fellow's hupa (wedding)". The context of this statement is that in the world to come, mid-level saints will enviously view the heavenly reward of higher level saints. The phenomenon of other worldly individuals succumbing to feelings of envy naturally leads us to ponder how we of this world are expected to avoid envy. Moreover, one could even legitimally argue that envy has a positive role to play in our day to day lives. An individual might see a friend or acquaintance succeeding in business or scholarship and this could serve him as a kick in the seat of his pants, telling him:" get up! move! achieve for yourself as well!"

     Whereas envy is perhaps a "natural" phenomenon, it would seem that the true power of "thou shalt not covet" lies not in its manifestation as a prohibition, but as a guide to awareness, similar to the first commandment "I am the Lord". However, whereas "I am the Lord" comes primarily to bring us to the recognition of God, "Thou shalt not covet" shows us how to best serve God, through happiness. As King Solomon wrote in the Proverbs (17, 22) "A happy heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones". "Thou shalt not covet" could thus be practically viewed as saying that an individual should not rationalize that whereas so and so has a, b, c and d, and, therefore, he can be happy, I, the poor wretch, lack a, b, c and d and therefore cannot be happy. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, used to say that he did not practice "outreach", rather, he practiced "inreach". He sought to show people that the true source of happiness emanates not from without, but from within. We should all strive to follow the path of inner happiness which surely leads to the gate which King David referred to as "the gate to God, through which the righteous shall enter."

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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