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Yisro: Coveting and Cognitive Theory

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Parshas Yisro features the first of two listings of the Aseres HaDribros, the Ten Commandments (Shemos 20:1-14). Each Dibrah highlights a central tenet of Jewish life and contains within it myriad other Mitzvos that appear throughout the rest of Torah. Perusing the list, one finds a series of commandments against specific behaviors: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t swear falsely, don’t provide false testimony, don’t serve idols, keep the Shabbos, honor your parents. These are all instructions regarding how we must act. And then, there are the outliers, commandments regarding our thoughts and feelings.

The Ramban notes (20:1) that the first Dibrah, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha” is a directive to know and believe in God’s existence and omnipotence. And the last of the ten commandments, Lo Sachmod (20:14), makes a demand on our emotions, rather than our behavior. “Lo Sachmod Beis Reiacha… Eishes Reiacha…” is typically translated as “do not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, belongings…” and yet the command not to covet is not a behavioral instruction. We are not being asked not to steal our neighbor’s belongings or to not commit adultery with our neighbor’s spouse; those Mitzvos have already been outlined in the previous Dibros. Rather, Lo Sachmod demands that we not experience “Chemdah,” often colloquially translated as “jealousy,” but perhaps more accurately translated as “desire.” Ostensibly, according to the Pshat, Hashem appears to be commanding us not to feel a specific emotion.

Rabbeinu Bachya (20:14) notes that this is precisely the nature of the Mitzvah. He explains that the command not to covet is a command not to desire the objects listed in the Pasuk, as desiring those things may inevitably lead to stealing and adultery, or taking what does not belong to you. As such, Lo Sachmod is a commandment to train oneself not to desire.

One might ask, how can Hashem mandate our emotions? Can it be that He created man with these traits called feelings, which we often experience as out of our full control, and yet at the same time He can require and even demand that we feel or not feel a certain emotion? Is this fair? Is this even possible? How can we be commanded not to desire something? Isn’t it a natural, innate response to have desires?

And yet, Lo Sachmod is not the first nor the last Mitzvah to appeal to our emotions. In fact, there are countless Mitzvos and Halachos that require something of us emotionally: we are commanded to love (Devarim 6:5) and fear (Vayikra 19:14,32; 25:17) God, to love our fellow Jews (Vayikra 19:18), and not to harbor hatred for others in our hearts (Vayikra 19:17). We cannot do any of this without labeling and regulating our emotions!

Apparently, Hashem wants us to know, understand, and be able to manage our emotions as part of our Torah observance. At the same time, it is interesting to note that while the Torah makes demands of us that require awareness of our emotions, it may at times feel like we are left to our own devices to figure out how to accomplish this very important task. How do we actually go about managing our emotions in a way that allows us to comply with these commands?

The Ibn Ezra comments about Lo Sachmod that one may think it is astounding that Hashem expects us to be able to not feel desire for the things we see around us that appeal to us. In explanation, Ibn Ezra provides a parable about a simple merchant who sees a princess pass in her royal carriage - even though she is beautiful and desirable, the simple merchant does not covet her, and does not harbor any urges to try to be with her romantically because he knows she is quite literally out of his league. Just as the merchant also knows that he cannot sprout wings and fly and therefore does not occupy himself with the desire to fly, so, too, he recognizes the impossibility of a union between himself and the princess, and as such does not desire her.

This is a fascinating Mashal, and perhaps adds a further layer of complexity to our question regarding the Torah’s dictates for our emotional experiences. Just because the merchant knows that he cannot realistically marry the princess does not necessarily mean he never feels even an ounce of desire for her; or is that, in fact, exactly what it means?

The Sforno sheds some possible light on these questions in his commentary on this Mitzvah. He explains that the commandment of Lo Sachmod begins in one’s thoughts: “yihiyeh hadavar etzlecha linimna gamur,” “[the commandment of Lo Sachmod states that] One should consider the object (of desire) as entirely unattainable,” so much so that you do not ever consider ways you could attain it. If we consider these explanations of the Ibn Ezra and Sforno together, the Dibrah of Lo Sachmod is a commandment regarding our emotions delivered with the important warning that controlling one’s emotions can begin with changing one’s thoughts and beliefs. If, as the Sforno says, we consider other peoples’ property as completely unattainable, if, as described by the Ibn Ezra, the merchant truly believes and internalizes that a union between himself and the princess is utterly impossible, then the desire for her, the desire for these other objects or belongings, is significantly mitigated if not entirely obliterated from one’s heart.

When we wonder how the Torah can command us to feel or not to feel, we must recognize within these commandments the secret to accomplishing this important task: perhaps, it begins with our thoughts and perceptions.

Within psychology, this idea is represented in the commonly used model for understanding the link between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Cognitive therapy, and its successor cognitive behavioral therapy, is predicated on the notion that cognitions, emotions, and actions are all linked to one another. A thought can come into our minds and trigger an emotion, which in turn generates an action or action urge. The opposite can also occur; one can experience an emotion, which in turn triggers a thought, which leads to a specific behavior. And of course, we can exhibit a behavior, and then have thoughts and feelings about it. The CBT model posits a transactional relationship where this triad is intertwined in multiple directions.

Throughout Torah, we see examples of this model in different directions, and we have, in fact, spoken about the idea of behaviors leading to emotions (and the Sefer HaChinuch’s view that emotions are generated based on our behavior). The opposite, however, is also true from a Torah perspective. How we feel also affects how we act - if I desire something, I will likely have the urge to try to procure it. Where do thoughts and beliefs fit into this model according to the Torah?

Based on what we have outlined above regarding the Mitzvah of Lo Sachmod, it appears the Torah is providing support for the view, posited by father of cognitive therapy Aaron Beck, that thoughts influence our emotions. As such, if we want to change the way we feel, we must become aware of our perceptions and beliefs, which will directly impact those emotions. If I hope to exercise control over the emotion of jealousy, the Torah advises that I consider the way I am thinking about the objects of my desire. Do I believe, even in some remote part of my mind, that I am lacking something that ought to be mine? Do I think that I am deserving of something I do not have? If so, is this perhaps a reflection of a lack of faith, a misperception that God has somehow neglected to give me that which rightfully belongs to me?

In many ways, belief in Hashem and knowledge of His existence underly our ability to mitigate jealousy and desire in our hearts. If we truly believe in Anochi Hashem Elokecha, and if we internalize that God ensures that everything we have we need and that everything we need we have, we are far less likely to experience jealousy or misdirected desire for things that aren’t meant to be ours.

I recently heard a comedian joke that the reason the tenth Commandment refers only to one’s neighbor’s belongings is that “back then,” a neighbor was likely the only person whose belongings you knew about aside from your own. Nowadays, with social media allowing us access inside thousands of peoples’ daily lives, it is infinitely more challenging not to be assaulted by thoughts of “why don’t I have this?” or “why does he/she have this?” on a regular basis. As a result, it is infinitely harder – and perhaps more important than ever – to notice and challenge these thoughts to prevent the natural consequence of desire and jealousy that will likely follow.

It is clear through the Dibros that following God’s commandments is not just a matter of actions (not stealing, keeping Shabbos); rather, a relationship with Hashem requires a foundation of beliefs (in Hashem) which generate thoughts (of His capacity to provide all that we need), which in turn allow us to temper our emotions (jealousy over others’ possessions). This week, consider which area of this triad needs some extra attention. Hopefully, through increased awareness of our thoughts and feelings, we can actualize in our service of God the way we truly desire.

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