True Desires

Hashem is our Creator. He fashioned every one of us, and therefore understands both our great potential and our human limitations. He wrote the Torah especially for us, as our guidebook for life. Therefore, we can assume that we are capable of accomplishing every mitzvah that He instructed us to do.

Parashas Yisro contains the Aseres HaDibros (The Ten Commandments), ten of the most fundamental commandments in the Torah, in which all of the mitzvos are contained.

After a simple reading of the Aseres HaDibros, the average person would find most of them both logical and feasible. For example, “Don’t kill,” “Don’t commit adultery” and “Don’t steal,” are generally accepted as “doable” mitzvos. The last commandment, however, might leave one a bit apprehensive: “Lo sachmod beis rei’echa; lo sachmod eishes rei’echa ve’avdo va’amaso veshoro vachamoro vechol asher lerei’echa (you shall not covet the home of your fellow; you shall not covet the wife of your fellow and his servant and his maidservant and his ox and his donkey and everything that belongs to your fellow).”[1] Nowadays, maidservants and donkeys might not be the coveted items, but we can certainly relate to wanting our neighbor’s new car or fancy china plates.

Desire is a feeling that seems to come almost unbidden. It is an emotion that tends to overwhelm one’s entire being. An obvious question arises: how can Hashem ask us to control a feeling? Isn’t that outside the limitations of human capability? We think to ourselves, Of course, I would never steal my neighbor’s new crystal vase, but I can’t even secretly want it? Let us try to define what the Torah identifies as “desire.” Rest assured, Hashem would never present us with a test we cannot pass. Accomplishing this mitzvah is within our grasp. We just need to recognize our G-d-given tools and find the strength to use them.

Desire Defined

When the Aseres HaDibros are repeated in parashas Va’eschanan, the wording is not identical to that in parashas Yisro. One of the changes is that this tenth commandment of “Lo sachmod” is referred to as “Lo sisaveh (you shall not desire).” This discrepancy helps define the two parts of the mitzvah. “Lo sisaveh” refers to desire – the first component in this prohibition. Desire means wanting another’s possession and making a mental plan to acquire it for oneself. “Lo sachmod” is stage two of the prohibition – coveting. Coveting is defined as pursuing that plan of getting the desired item.[2] Desire is not the undeveloped general thoughts of wanting someone else’s belongings. Rather, desire is defined as having a plan to get what one wants, and intending to act accordingly.

A practical example will illustrate this concept. You notice that your friend is wearing a new beautiful diamond necklace. The jewels are stunning; the piece seems to have been designed for your specific taste. A small voice in your head says, “I wish I had that.” While these thoughts reflect a negative middah, as we will soon discuss, they don’t technically transgress a specific mitzvah. Taking the example further, once you decide to try to get that necklace from her, and have begun to formulate a plan of acquisition, for example, by mentally preparing convincing remarks with which to pressure her to sell or give it to you – you have committed the sin of desiring – “Lo sisave”; you have crossed the line into the first stage of the aveirah.

Let’s suppose you go one step further. You carry out your plan to get the necklace, and you actually approach her with the purpose of persuading her to part with it. At this point, even if you have not yet convinced her to give it to you, you have committed the sin of coveting – “Lo sachmod.” Just thinking “I wish I had that necklace,” is not a transgression. Design and execution of a plan to get the necklace are the transgression in two stages: desiring and coveting.

It is important to note that if you think she might actually be interested in selling her necklace, you are allowed to make an inquiry. However, if you are certain that she would not be interested, or if you inquire and she says no, it would fall within the realm of lo sisaveh and lo sachmod[3] to plan and attempt to persuade her.

Now that we understand the fine details of the tenth commandment, let us better understand how we can uphold it. The most effective way to avoid transgressing any prohibition is to analyze our underlying motivations to do it in the first place. As mentioned above, the step that precedes desiring and coveting is the first negative thought – the yearning for the possessions of another. The source of this thought is the middah of jealousy. In Pirkei Avos we learn that “Jealousy, desire and honor remove a person from the world.”[4] This may sound overly dramatic, but it is true. Jealousy and envy are such destructive emotions that they often lead us to neglect the most fundamental mitzvos. Envy is the motivating point of origin that leads to desiring and coveting; therefore, the key to mastering Lo sisave and Lo sachmod is to “nip it in the bud.” We need to do more than discipline ourselves not to act out of envy and jealousy. Those feelings need to be uprooted altogether. This seems to be a tall order for human beings; jealousy and envy are impulsive, natural reactions. This brings us back to our original question: how can we hope to control a feeling? Isn’t that outside the limitations of human capability?

Freeing Limitations

Before we understand how to approach this mitzvah of Lo sachmod and the root middah of jealousy, let us clarify one of the foundational purposes for mitzvos in general by examining our Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) experience. We glean many eternal lessons from the transformative experience at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai).

In preparation for receiving the Torah, Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to create a restricted area around the mountain, into which the people were forbidden to enter.[5]

Creating this boundary, explains Rabbi Moshe Reiss,[6] was not only a technical necessity; this action was indicative of the covenant the Jews would have with Hashem. The Torah is full of instructions to create boundaries. With certain mitzvos, the Torah restricts our actions, speech or emotions, such as the mitzvos to avoid stealing, speaking lashon hara (evil speech) and hating your fellow Jew. Other mitzvos require specific actions, speech, and emotions; such is the case with lending money to a Jew in need, saying kiddush on Shabbos, and loving G-d. Whether it is a commandment “to do” or “not to do,” they are all restrictions that the Torah places on our natural human inclinations. If during the preparation period, even before we received the actual Torah, Hashem felt compelled to impart this message of boundaries to us, it must be a fundamental idea.

Let us try to understand Hashem’s purpose in establishing these boundaries. The Talmud tells us,[7] that when Moshe Rabbeinu went up to the heavens to receive the Torah, the angels complained: “You are giving Your precious treasure to flesh and blood? Your Glory belongs in the heavens!” Hashem then instructed Moshe to answer them.

Moshe Rabbeinu questioned the angels. “Is it not written in this Torah, ‘I am Hashem your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt’? Were angels enslaved in Egypt?” Moshe asked them further, “Is it not written in the Torah, ‘You shall not have any other deities’? Do you live among nations who engage in avodah zarah (idol worship)?” And so, he proceeded to review each of the Aseres HaDibros, highlighting how they do not relate to the angels, but exclusively to human beings. “Do you do creative labor, so that you may refrain from it on Shabbos? Do you have parents to honor? Do you have a yetzer hara (evil inclination) that would cause you to commit murder or adultery?” In the end, the angels understood why Hashem was giving the Torah to human beings.

On one hand, hearing this quaint and familiar story makes us feel justified in our Torah inheritance. On the other hand, it does not seem to make sense. The theme of the story seems to be Moshe convincing the angels that mitzvos are structured to be performed by human beings. One can assume that the angels of Hashem were well aware of the Torah’s design. What exactly did Moshe’s “interrogation” prove? What persuaded the angels to concede?

Rabbi Yisroel Belsky[8] explains that there are two facets to Torah, identified by the phrases “from above to below” and “from below to above.” Let us explore these elusive expressions individually. The first quality, “from above to below,” describes the downward direction of the flow of holiness, from Hashem in the upper worlds down to us in the physical world. It refers to the aspect of Torah that is initiated by Hashem and influences the inhabitants of this world.

“From above to below” is Torah as revelation. Torah exists to reveal a G-dly perspective on the world. When we learn Torah correctly, we come to see the world from the perspective of G-d. When it comes to this purpose of Torah, the angels can do a much better job than human beings. They can perceive more because they are not blocked by physicality. With respect to a person’s capacity to recognize Him, Hashem says: “For man shall not see Me and live.”[9] Physical life brings with it a physical body that is an obstacle to the clear perception of the spiritual. Even Moshe Rabbeinu, who achieved the highest level of revelation possible, was still a physical being. Moshe was able to see only “the back” of Hashem, but not “His face.”[10]

In the cited Gemara, the angels used this line of reasoning when complaining to Hashem about giving the Torah to flesh and blood. They argued that it was better to keep the Torah in the heavens, where Torah’s aspect of revelation could be achieved to the greatest degree.

The opposite expression is called “from below to above”; it describes the aspect of Torah in which the catalyst comes from this world and is directed toward Hashem. The holiness is sparked by the efforts of those in the physical world below and flows heavenward to Hashem. Torah enables something less G-dly to become more G-dly. Only human beings can change and raise ourselves up. This contrast between a human being and an angel is described in the book of Zecharyah: “So says Hashem, ‘If you will go in My ways… I will give you where to walk among those who stand’.”[11] “Those who stand” refers to angels. Angels might be sacred and lofty, but they are stagnant; they cannot move beyond the levels at which they were created. Humans are the only creations that can “walk”; we are spiritually mobile creatures.

Moshe Rabbeinu presented the attributes of “from below to above” and argued this case in front of the angels. True, angels may be able to perceive G-dly revelation more, but human beings can make themselves more G-dly.

With this perspective, we understand the underlying theme of boundaries at Har Sinai. The “restrictions” that the Torah places on us are not meant to constrain us, but on the contrary, to free us from our inborn limitations as physical beings, to free us to become more G-dly. When we live by the Torah, we are greater than the angels because we are changing; we are becoming bigger people.

Taking Control

Now that we understand why we have the commandments, we can return to our original challenge. We know that the Torah’s guidelines are to enable us to become more G-dly people, to break free of our emotional limitations that stem from us being physical creatures. But how practically do we free ourselves, particularly from the middah of jealousy?

Sefer HaChinuch[12] presents this question regarding the Torah’s requirement to control our desires[13]. Interestingly, the author states unequivocally that these are the questions of fools! He says that intelligent, honest people know that they are the masters of their emotions. In reality, however, though most of us would like to believe that we are intelligent and sincere people, the intensity of our desires makes us feel that these desires are often unmanageable. If the Sefer HaChinuch considers it a basic assumption that emotions are controllable, why do we experience the opposite? What is the missing link here?

Let us examine the general nature of our desires. Are there defining boundaries of jealousy?

The Ibn Ezra offers a relevant mashal.[14] A simple peasant seeking a wife, due to his lowly status, has a small pool of potential candidates. Maybe he considers his neighbor’s daughter, or the peasant girl down the road. Perhaps if he feels confident, he muses about the girl from the family who “made it big” and owns three plots of land instead of only one.

This simple man would never yearn to marry the royal princess. Even if she is the most beautiful and desirable woman, he still won’t invest any emotional energy in longing for her. Why not? Because he doesn’t consider the princess to be a realistic option for him, because royalty doesn’t marry commoners like him.

Our mindset is comparable to that of this man in the mashal. We only long for things that we think are within the scope of personal possibility. It is important to recognize this human phenomenon: our desires remain within the boundaries of our self-perception and, therefore, place limitations on our envy and jealousy.

Let us illustrate this idea with a practical example of a woman who considers herself to be a good dancer. Because of her self-perception, she’ll dream about starring roles in dance performances. More than that, she will think that she could (and should) get a lead role one day. If a better dancer lands a starring role, she will naturally feel pangs of jealousy toward her. But why is that so, if the other dancer is obviously more qualified? If she perceives herself as a talented dancer, she considers that lead role to be within her reach. Her thoughts might be, I’m a good dancer too, and I could perform well in that role! Chances are, by contrast, that a clumsy woman with no sense of rhythm would never feel envious of a friend’s accomplishments in dance. If she doesn’t perceive that achievement to be relevant to her, she has no reason to be jealous.

What is determining our desires in these cases? It is our perspectives on ourselves and on the world. So we do have control over our desires, just as the Sefer HaChinuch says, albeit not direct control. It is control through our perspectives. If we can develop perspectives of emes (truth), that will change our thoughts and desires to be reflective of emes.

Believing is Seeing

Introductions and conclusions often have a common theme or connection. Such is the case with the Aseres HaDibros, according to Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch.[15] The first commandment of “Anochi Hashem Elokecha (I am Hashem, your G-d)” is deeply connected to the last one of “Lo sachmod.”

The first commandment is the mitzvah of emunah (belief). Real emunah is not just intellectual knowledge. It is an emotional internalization that determines the perspective with which we look at the world. Part of the mitzvah of emunah is the awareness that Hashem is the Source of all creation, providing each individual being with exactly what it needs physically and spiritually. If that is truly our perspective on the world, then it would never enter our minds that other people’s possessions or life situations are what we could or should have.

Those with emunah realize, as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler points out,[16] that everything in an individual’s possession was given to him by Hashem in order to achieve his particular purpose in life.

Let us take the analogy of a play. In a play, each character receives the props that he needs for his role; the person playing the chef would have a box of kitchen utensils and the doctor would have a box of medical supplies. Would the person playing the chef ever desire a stethoscope? No, because it won’t help him in his role. Would a doctor ever dream about owning an eggbeater? No, because it won’t help him in his role. Hashem gives us certain inborn talents, life circumstances, and even physical possessions with which to fulfill our role and purpose in life. If there is something we do not have, it must be that we do not need it. It would be unnecessary, and even counter-productive for achieving our unique potential, to have anything more than Hashem gave us.

Consider Rabbi Dessler’s mashal of a prescription for eyeglasses. Wearing another person’s glasses doesn’t help you see and will often blur your vision. Would anyone ever insist to his eye doctor, “But I don’t want a -2.5 prescription. Can you give me -5.25? I like that number better. My best friend has -5.25! Why did you give it to her and not to me?” Of course, we realize that the purpose of glasses is to help one see. So if someone else’s glasses will not help us see, there is no sense in wanting them. Prescriptions are customized to individual people.

That is the perspective of ruchniyus (spirituality): “I want only what I need to fulfill my purpose in life.” The perspective of gashmiyus (physicality), on the other hand, is “I want whatever I want – whether or not it helps me fulfill my purpose in life.”

Someone once shared with me that the eye-glasses mashal is her motto for handling jealousy. If someone in the family expresses a desire for another’s belongings, the parent tells him, “It’s his prescription.” Meaning, it’s his tool because it will further him in his avodas Hashem. You don’t have it because it will only detract from your avodah. If “It’s his prescription” means something in that family, that is proof that they have an integrated outlook of emunah.

Mine or on a Mission?

Integrating this perspective into our lives can change us in profound ways. When we internalize that other people’s possessions are irrelevant to us, we realize eventually that even our own possessions are not truly ours.

A line from a Shavuos piyut reads, “Zeh sheyesh lo aino sheloh; she’aino shelo lama hu lo? (What he has is not his; what need does he have of that which is not his?)” Rabbi Moshe Reiss quotes this verse to underscore[17] how everything we receive in life is given on loan. “What he has” – his property, “it is not his” – he doesn’t actually own; everything belongs to Hashem. It says in Tehillim, “Malah ha’aretz kinyanecha (The earth is filled with Your possessions).”[18] Hashem puts the physical world at our disposal to borrow temporarily. This idea explains the custom of writing on the inside cover of a book: “LaHashem ha’aretz umelo’ah (to Hashem is the earth and all that fills it), birshus vechezkas… (this book is in the domain and the holding of…)”. These words indicate the understanding that this book isn’t really ours. We are just holding it for as long as Hashem puts it in our possession.

A verse in the last chapter of Shir HaShirim reads, “If a man would give all the wealth of his home for love, they would make fun of him.”[19] The romantic love depicted in Shir HaShirim is an analogy describing our love for Hashem. If a person would give all of his wealth for the love of Hashem, why would people mock him?

One of the previous Slonimer Rebbes explains[20] that the choice of phraseology “the wealth of his home” hints at the person’s general outlook. He feels that he owns the home, and he is generously giving his personal wealth. This person does not believe that everything he owns is on loan from G-d. He is not mocked because he is giving to Hashem, but because of his delusion that it is “the wealth of his home” – his own property – that he is giving. “They would make fun of him” because he feels generous for giving to Hashem what is already His! By contrast, a person with the perspective of emes realizes that he just an emissary, giving what is really Hashem’s possession.

The appreciation of our property and our treatment of it change when we realize it is on loan. Imagine the following scenario: you are building with wood and need to attach two pieces together with nails. Your neighbor kindly lends you his brand-new hammer. Think of how much you would appreciate it, since it’s exactly the tool you need. Think about how you would treat that hammer with such care, using it only for its intended purpose. If we are really borrowing all our belongings from Hashem, then we need to ask ourselves why Hashem lent them to us.

As we alluded to earlier, Hashem lends us personalized life-tools at precisely the time we need them, so that we can reach our potential in avodas Hashem. The Maggid of Mezrich interprets[21] the previously cited verse in a different way. “Malah ha’aretz kinyanecha (the earth is filled with Your possessions).” Says the Maggid: Don’t read the translation of kinyanecha as “possessions” but rather as “acquisitions.” He explains that the verse really means that the earth is filled with “ways to acquire You.” The world is full of physical objects, and all of them contain potential opportunities to acquire holiness. Our possessions are for temporary usage, to elevate us spiritually and to enable us to achieve our G-d-given purpose on this earth.

When we perceive our property as such, we will better appreciate what we have and strive to use everything for its proper purpose in avodas Hashem. In this way, jealousy for other people’s tools is the farthest thought from our minds.

Unique individuals have shown us that it is possible to develop this perspective of our physical property. Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg hy”d, a Chabad emissary in India, was murdered by terrorists in 2008. When a particular woman visited the house of mourning, she handed Rivkah’s mother a beautiful dress and Rikvah’s diamond ring. When the woman was asked how she had come into possession of Rivkah’s valuables, she told her story:

This woman had had a troubled past and had served time in prison. Due to the primitive corrective system and corrupt officials, she had managed to escape. She somehow landed at the Holtzbergs’ home, where she was warmly welcomed; they fed her and treated her with kindness. They advised her to leave India immediately, but the woman feared being caught at passport control. Rivkah told her that if she dressed elegantly like a married woman, the Indian authorities wouldn’t give her any trouble. Rivkah then removed her diamond ring, found one of her Shabbos dresses and handed them both to the woman. The woman then wore these items and left the country effortlessly. She had now come to the house of mourning to pay her condolences and return Rivkah’s precious possessions.

When Rivkah’s mother accepted these items, she reminisced emotionally about her last visit with Rivkah. She had noticed Rivkah wasn’t wearing her ring. When asked about it, Rivkah replied, “Zeh beshelichut (It’s on a special mission).”

Rivkah Holtzberg internalized that our possessions are from G-d and we are meant to use them for avodas Hashem. No doubt that her diamond engagement ring had both monetary and sentimental value to her. Nevertheless, she still perceived it as a just a tool for her temporary use. As soon as Hashem gave her an opportunity to do chesed (kindness) with it, she gave it freely. Our goal is to achieve this level. Everything we possess is not ours. It’s on a mission. We have the ability to decide how it will be a tool in our service of Hashem, but that is the extent of our “ownership.”

Choose Your Priorities

Our perspectives are not only important to us as individuals. These values influence those around us, especially the next generation. If our actions focus on gashmiyus, then our children hear the underlying message and adopt that value. However, if our deeds are spiritually-oriented, the aim being to serve Hashem, then others will be influenced by our example. Our desires impact the family in profound ways. Emotional reactions to others’ gashmiyus send powerful messages to our children.

When our neighbors go on an expensive vacation, do we wish aloud that we could, too? The woman who always contributes exquisite cakes to a Kiddush – do we think about her, How does she have time to do that? Why don’t I bring cakes like that? We notice something new on our friend’s bookshelf. Wow! He just got that new edition of Shas (Talmud). Wouldn’t it be amazing if I had one like that? How do these responses affect other people, especially the young people who look at us as role models to emulate?

On a personal note, once an appraiser came to assess the monetary value of our property for insurance purposes. He took a small scale out of his bag and said: “Okay, let’s weigh your jewelry.” So, I handed him the few inexpensive pieces that I own. He looked a bit disappointed and asked, “Is that all you have?” I replied, “Well, we do have a lot of seforim (Torah books).” He shook his head, “No, no. What about silver items?” I proceeded to show him a couple of menorahs and kiddush cups. He asked, “What other silver things do you have?” I replied, “That’s all the silver, but we have a lot of seforim.” He frowned and asked, “Cameras?” We handed him our two cameras.

The exchange continued in this way. Whenever he asked for more, we would reply, “No, but we have a lot of seforim. Books are really important.” After a while, the appraiser was frustrated with us and decided to look around our apartment himself. At the end of his survey, he commented, “You know, you have a lot of books!” I said, “Right! Books! That is important to us!”

I hope that my children gleaned two lessons from the incident. The first message is that seforim are worth acquiring. What we fill our homes with speaks volumes (!) about our priorities. I also hope they heard the assessor point out that we didn’t own significant amounts of jewelry, silver, or cameras. Our response, both internally and externally, was not a sigh or a frown, saying, Wow – why don’t we have more of those things? If we had reacted with a hint of disappointment, the strong value placed on gashmiyus would have been subtly conveyed to our children. The people around us, especially our children, observe all that we do. Our actions and reactions influence their thoughts and subsequently their actions.

From Commoner to Royalty

Relating to our possessions from the perspective of emes seems like a very high level to strive for. The Sefer HaChinuch taught us, however, that every human being has that capability. We all have the ability to focus, to reflect, to do the deep introspection that will bring us to a change in perspective, and then the changes will follow naturally in thought and behavior.

A mashal, accredited to Rabbi Henoch HaCohen from Alexander [22] turns the Ibn Ezra’s peasant mashal around. The Ibn Ezra’s peasant would never dream of marrying the princess because she’s too far above him in status. Rabbi Henoch HaCohen, by contrast, describes a king who would never desire to marry a peasant girl; after all, she spends her day feeding slop to the pigs. It’s beneath his dignity to desire someone so lowly.

We are all princes and princesses, the children of Melech Malchei HaMelachim (the King of kings). It is beneath our dignity to look outside Hashem’s palace and long to live like a peasant. We are Hashem’s royal people who understand that our Father the King is providing us with everything we need to fulfill our potential. Why would we want anything else? Why would we want tools that don’t apply to our mission? If we value ruchniyus, wanting only what we need for our avodas Hashem, why would we lower ourselves and desire gashmiyus just for physical satisfaction?

We all have the ability to control our desires and develop a royal perspective. The jealousy that leads us to desire has no place in our lives, because we each have exactly what we need. In reality, everything belongs to Hashem and all our possessions were given to us with a Divine purpose. He provides each individual with the necessary customized tools to complete his unique mission.

By elevating our perspective, we observe this tenth commandment and transform ourselves. We grow one step closer to the Almighty and to reaching the spiritual potential that was given exclusively to human beings. May we be zocheh to only desire to see the truth. Hashem is the Master Owner of all creation. He is also the Loving Provider that gives us all the precise tools with which to fix the world.


[1] Shemos 20:14.

[2] Silber, Mishpatei HaShalom, chapter 12, p. 138-142.

[3] Silber, Mishpatei HaShalom, perek 12, p. 138-142

[4] Avos 4:21.

[5] Shemos 19:12.

[6] MeiRosh Tzurim, Shemos, p. 207-214.

[7] Shabbos 88b-89a.

[8] Einei Yisrael, Shemos, p. 196.

[9] Shemos 33:20.

[10] ibid., 33:23.

[11] Zechariah 3:7.

[12] Mitzvah 416 – Lo Sisaveh.

[13] From his explanations of the mitzvah, the Sefer HaChinuch seems to hold that even pure thought and desire would fall into the prohibition of lo sisaveh. His questions and answers are about the mitzvah itself, although even if one goes like the majority of halachic authorities, his explanation still applies to the middah of jealousy, which – as seen above – is a harmful middah, and is the root cause of any violation of lo sisaveh and lo sachmod.

[14] Commentary on the Torah, Shemos 20:13.

[15] Ta’am VaDa’as, p. 133.

[16] Michtav Mei’Eliyahu, vol. 1, p. 135-136.

[17] MeiRosh Tzurim, p. 213.

[18] Tehillim 104:24.

[19] Shir HaShirim 8:7.

[20] As brought in Nesivos Shalom, Vayikra, p. 159.

[21] As brought in Nesivos Shalom, Bereishis, p. 16.

[22] Brought by Rabbi Reiss in MeiRosh Tzurim, p. 213.