There may be better ways of explaining to a child the meaning of ‘do not desire what does not belong to you.’ But it’s not simple. Coveting, like its siblings Desire, Lust, and Greed are with us, or so it seems, from a very early age. Don’t we always want more of what we can’t or shouldn’t have? Haven’t we always?
The tenth commandment does not refer only to the sins of lust. It lists the types of properties one must not desire – someone else’s spouse, servant or ox (or laptop). Like the other nine commandments, this one is a pretty good idea, an early form of ethical norm making. But unless the other nine it is the only one that prevents one from even thinking about transgression. It’s an early version of mind control. But how well does it work?
Coveting, in all its manifestations, can easily, perhaps too easily, be identified as the possible root of so many evils – consider consumerism or adultery, and useless wars and crashing markets. Have I mentioned global warming? Throughout human history, it seemed, with an eye always on the next big thing, our healthy appetites became binges of craving, crashing delicate eco-systems of propriety, and destroying lives, homes and countries. Now it may even be the planet.
That delicate, seductive boundary between wanting and coveting gets easily blurred. Somewhere, somehow, I know there are all the right ways to keep us from blurring.
But even the people Israel, who had just seen God, been fed manna by the heavens and led home by a pillar of fire, were lost in the blur – never satisfied and craving more. One day, in the middle of the Sinai, they demanded meat and caused a riot. The whole story is told, as if written for the stage, in Chapter Eleven of the Book of The Wilderness, smack in the middle of this week’s super-packed Torah portion called B’halotcha. It’s the tale about the miracle of the quails and the fatal food poisoning that happened after. It’s a cautionary tale about excess:
“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
(Treat yourself to this entire chapter, honestly, it’s a great read, especially in the excellent English translation of the New JPS Bible now free online – on this excellent site. psookim.com)
I am torn between feeling sympathy for the protein protesters (I am no vegetarian) and deep contempt. The text, I know, wants me to hate them. But in their craving I hear a longing for some more profound than flesh. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. What was it they desired? Why was it so wrong?
‘felt a gluttonous craving’ is a funny translation. The Hebrew expression used to describe the demand of the ‘riffraff’ the instigated the riots (not a bad translation, rather) is Hitavu Taava – something like ‘they desired desire’. It’s as if what they wanted was simply more than what present. The rest of the people (call them ‘the mainstream’ then get swept by the momentum of discount and raised the flag over the shortage of meat. But it could have been anything. The rest of the story is intense: God gets involved and a lot of angry words are hurled back and forth, and finally the flocks of quails descend upon the Sinai, and the people hunt, and eat, and are satisfied, and many die, mysteriously, with the meat still within their teeth. They then name that place Kivrot Ha’Taava – the graves of gluttony, or perhaps – the death of desire.
When desire itself is the motive of the craving, and not the specific object of desire, something goes wrong. Perhaps that is why the tenth commandment prohibits even thinking about that which is off limits, excessive to what we need, or what we get to get.
I think about the cost of craving as real riots flare outside Jerusalem today. Angry Jewish settlers were protesting the Israeli government’s dismantling of several outposts in the West Bank. They burned tires, stopped traffic and set fires to Palestinian fields. Here, in the land where land is the biggest coveting victim of all, wanting more is almost the norm. Everybody ends up losing.
“It was once religion which told us that we are all sinners… it is now the ecology of our planet which pronounces us all to be sinners because of the excessive exploits of human inventiveness. It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgment at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day… the latest revelation – from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the sermon, is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.”
This fantastic quote, from the late philosopher Hans Jonas is a somber reminder for why taking care of our desire habits and coveting less is no longer a luxury. It should perhaps become the commandment number one.