Drash on Parashat Yitro
Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
One of the many beautiful aspects of Torah is that no matter how many times we read a verse or a passage there is always a new insight to be discovered, a new lesson to be learned. This year, as I read through Parashat Yitro, the last of the Ten Commandments particularly struck me:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s (Ex. 20: 14).
This commandment has puzzled commentators in ways that numbers 1-9 have not.
That’s because all the other Ten Commandments tell us what we should do or not do: Honour our father and mother; Keep Shabbat; Do not worship other gods; Do not steal. All of these commandments make sense in that they prescribe or prohibit actions that can have profound consequences. But the 10th Commandment – You shall not covet – seems to prohibit a feeling, not an action, and our tradition struggles with this.
Rabbi Levi ben Gershon and Maimonides deal with this by claiming that coveting is an act – the act of actually trying to obtain the object of desire, whereas a craving for something that is not acted on is not coveting and therefore not prohibited.
But this interpretation does not fit with our common understanding that coveting means feeling an inordinate desire for something that belongs to another. Ibn Ezra and Radak also see coveting as a feeling, not an action, and the commentary Tz’enah Ur’enah teaches, “Do not envy your friend’s prosperity. This is a sin of the heart, and a very grave one.”
Coveting may be a very grave sin – but it is a very common one. Often we want what we cannot have or what others do. Perhaps a watch in a window or a friend’s new car. A classmate’s Oxbridge acceptance or a colleague’s promotion.
But while coveting may be a fact of human nature, it is destructive, leading to resentment, self-pity, anger, and jealousy – attitudes that are corrosive and can constrict our lives. Focusing on what we lack and others have clouds our vision and obscures what really matters in life.
We can control our actions – not stealing, not committing adultery, honouring parents – but how do we control a feeling? Our tradition offers a prescription:
Hakarat Ha’tov – literally recognising the good or developing “an attitude of gratitude.” A well-developed sense of gratitude is not only an antidote to covetousness. Secular research has shown that those who regularly express gratitude are more likely to be forgiving, generous, agreeable and less likely to be narcissistic and selfish. Further, high levels of gratitude correlate with high levels of happiness.
The traditional Jewish approach to cultivating gratitude is daily prayer. Fully one-third of the prayers in the daily service address the theme of gratitude, thanking God for “the miracles that surround us every day.” But habituation can affect prayer itself and, without conscious effort, one’s prayers can become stale and rote. This is why we should consciously try to develop a habit of Hakarat Ha’tov – A habit of attention that finds beauty and meaning in the mundane.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch Magder writes that seeing the good was something she learned from her mother.
When I was in 9th grade, my mother went back to school, I moved from a tiny Jewish school to a large public school, and my family prepared to move to a different city. I was miserable. Each night my mother would make a list of the things that had gone well that day – my sandwich was not soggy, I finished my math homework with ease, walking home before the rain started.
A not-soggy sandwich and easy math homework are indeed things to be grateful for.
They are the small, ordinary gifts of everyday life. Rabbi Magder’s mother knew the power of gratitude.
Practicing gratitude may seem straightforward, but in the best of times it does require conscious effort. It is much more challenging during a pandemic. For two years, we have lived with illness, suffering, death, frustration, anxiety, economic distress, and isolation. Yet it is precisely because of these on-going trials that the need to cultivate gratitude to sustain us has never been greater.
And so I have a bit of a challenge for you. Some researchers say that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, so for the next three weeks, give Hakarat Ha’tov a try. Every day, intentionally do something that will help you recognise the good in your life.
Here’s one suggestion: Set aside a notebook or pad of paper and every evening think back over the past day and write down up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for. At the end of 21 days you’ll have over 100 “gratitude reminders” and hopefully a new, powerful habit as well.
The 10th Commandment tells us what not to do – Do not covet anything that is our neighbour’s – but it does not tell us what we must do in order to fulfill it – develop a heart made whole and right with gratitude. A heart so filled with thanks and appreciation that there is no room for self-pity, envy or resentment. As the Chassidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught:
Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.
Let’s light the candle and have a party.