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Parashat Yitro: What Does it Mean to Be Rich?

The Torah portion of this week is surely the most well-known in its content, along with last week's Shabbat, in which we relived the parting of the Red Sea. In this one, we will relive the giving of the Tablets of the Law, and according to some, the Torah itself. And yet, the name of the portion, Yitro, refers to Moses' father-in-law, the father of Tzipora, an outsider to the people of Israel and a Midianite priest, among other peoples among whom, according to the Midrash, he exercised ritual authority in his apparent spiritual quest. Nevertheless, it is Yitro who receives the honor of giving his name to the portion after advising his son-in-law in organizing a better-armed and more judicially structured nation to achieve a more just society. 


This happens just before the moment when the Law will be given to this immature and capricious people. Yitro prepares Moses to lay the foundations for a system in which the laws of the Torah are applicable, judicable, and enforceable.


Then comes the moment of the delivery of the world's most famous Decalogue. We usually read the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, as two groups of five inscribed on two tablets, either different or perhaps joined together. The first four commandments link man to the Holy One, Blessed be He, while the second column contains five commandments linking man to man, and one commandment, the fifth, bridging the two groups by honoring our fathers and mothers so that our days may be multiplied in this world that the Lord has granted us. This commandment is the union between our obligations to the spiritual and the earthly.


However, there is another division that also does justice to the Decalogue. The first three (One God, No other God, Do not take the name of God in vain) have to do with God, the Author, and the Authority of the laws. The second series (Keep the Sabbath, Honor our parents, Do not murder) is related to creation. The Sabbath reminds us of the creation of the universe. Our parents brought us into the world. Murder is prohibited because we were all created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 9:6). The third group of three (Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness) deals with the basic institutions of society: the sanctity of marriage, the integrity of private property, and the administration of justice. The loss of any of these leads to the weakening of freedom.


This almost novel division only emphasizes how unusual the tenth commandment is: "Do not covet your neighbor's house. Do not covet your neighbor's wife, his slave, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."


At least superficially, this is different from the previous commandments that involve words or actions. It is not prohibiting or asking us to do or not do something. Envy, coveting, desiring something that another possesses, is a feeling, not a thought, a word, or a deed. And certainly, we cannot control our emotions. It's like when the Shema tells us that we must love our God with all our heart, with all our being, and with all our strength. How do you ask someone to love?


These feelings refer to passions. And they are called "passions" precisely because we are passive in relation to them. So, how can envy be prohibited or love be requested? Manifestly, it makes no sense to command or prohibit matters that are not under our control. In any case, what does it matter if the feeling of envy is controlled and does not cause any action that harms others?


Envy is one of the main generators of violence in our history and in the history of humanity. It is what caused Cain to murder Abel. And it is what led Abraham and Isaac to fear for their lives when famine forced them to temporarily leave home. They believed that being married to attractive women, the local ruler would kill them to take their wives and add them to his harem. Envy led Joseph to be hated by his brothers. They resented their father's special treatment of him, the embroidered cloak he wore, and his dreams of dominating them. That's what led them to think of killing him and eventually selling him as a slave.


Envy played a role in maintaining anti-Semitism throughout the centuries, justified or not. Non-Jews envied the ability of Jews to thrive in adversity. According to the Torah, Pharaoh feared the number and quality of the growth of this strange people living among them who, even when enslaved, "the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread." We always come back to the concept of humility. Even when many may consider being "the Chosen People" puts us above others, the Torah repeatedly leads us to reconsider and practice humility.


So, the prohibition of envy is nothing strange. Envy is the greatest force destined to undermine the social harmony and order that are the objectives of the Ten Commandments as a whole. It not only prohibits it but helps us overcome it. It is precisely the first three commandments that remind us of God's presence in history and in our lives, and the second three, reminding us that we were created, that help us overcome envy.


We are here because God wanted it that way. We have what God wanted us to have. So why desire what others have? If the most important thing in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of God, why would we want something else just because someone else has it? It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to others that competition, struggle, greed, and envy begin to enter our minds, leading only to unhappiness.


The antidote to envy is gratitude. "Who is rich?" Ben Zoma asked, and he answers, "One who is happy with what he has." There is a beautiful Jewish practice that, when done daily, is transformative. The first words we say upon waking up are Modeh Ani Lefanecha, "I thank you, the living and eternal King." We thank before thinking, even before starting our day, our life day by day.


May God allow us to reconnect with our empty selves in relation to the Holy One, Blessed be He. May we value who we are and who those around us are beyond our possessions and theirs. May we share what we have with those who need it, with our community, to achieve a more just world and a more dignified commitment to the values of our tradition and our laws.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Gustavo Geier

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