I have always been taught that actions speak louder than words, that it is what we do, not what we think, that matters. We might not be able to control the thoughts that pop into our heads, but as long as we don’t act upon the more nefarious ones, what does it matter? How can my thoughts harm anyone? And yet, the Tenth Commandment seems to legislate against thoughts—“Do not Covet/Desire” (Exodus 20:14/Deut. 5:18). Additionally, the commandment tells us not to covet our neighbor’s spouse, servants, livestock, or any of his other possessions. Since we are already commanded against murder, adultery, theft (some say kidnapping), and swearing falsely in court, what does this commandment add?
Maimonides, (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nizikin, Laws of Gezeilah Ve’aveidah, chapter 1) explains both the sins of coveting, and desiring, which he argues are two separate commands.
Anyone who covets…and pressures him with friends and requests until he agrees to sell [the desired object] to him, violates a negative commandment, even though he pays much money for it (halakhah 9).
Anyone who desires…violates a negative commandment at the time he thinks in his heart, "How is it possible to acquire this from him?" and his heart is aroused by the matter, as Deuteronomy 5:18 states: "Do not desire…." Desire refers to feelings in the heart alone. (halakhah 10).
According to Maimonides, coveting is when we act to convince someone to part with something he never had any intention of giving up. Even if we have paid handsomely for the item, upon taking possession of it we have transgressed the sin, “Do not covet.”
“Desiring,” means this: If I think to myself, “I’d like his Picasso” I have not sinned. But if I think to myself, “How can I get his Picasso?” then I am planning and scheming; these thoughts (or actions of the mind) violate the commandment, “Do not desire.”
All actions begin with plans and all plans begin with thoughts. The Torah is teaching us that we can, in fact, control what we think. If a covetous thought pops into my head, well, that is human nature. But if I invite the thought to dominate my mind then I have violated, “Do not desire.” Just as we can talk ourselves into or out of a state of courage, we can conquer our covetous thoughts and focus our minds on healthier ideas.
The 10 Commandments comprise a basic roadmap for living a righteous life. We have the power to act or not act, to control our behavior and create lives of holiness and beauty. When we master our minds rather than allowing our minds to master us, we come that much closer to fashioning a place of sanctity for ourselves, body and soul.
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